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Hertfordshire woodland classroom project proves big success

PUBLISHED: 09:46 11 March 2017

Groups of school children access the six-week course. The project has expanded to the home-schooled and tots and a River School is planned this year

Groups of school children access the six-week course. The project has expanded to the home-schooled and tots and a River School is planned this year

hmwt

An innovative project that lets children discover, learn and play in woodland has proved so successful it’s expanding to give more children access to the wild. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust Forest Schools officer Becky Shenton explains

Mini-bug hunts are one of the popular activitiesMini-bug hunts are one of the popular activities

As technology plays an increasingly central part in our children’s education we at Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust think it’s equally important to make sure children interact with nature. At Panshanger Park’s Forest School we hold lessons that involve less technology and much more mud!

Opened in 2015, the school at Tarmac’s Panshanger Park, between Welwyn GC and Hertford, is a world away from the electronic whiteboards classrooms that children today are used to. The Forest School, a Tarmac initiative delivered in partnership with the trust, is an inspirational scheme that offers all learners regular opportunities to develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning in a woodland environment.

It’s a long-proven fact that getting out into nature is good for us. It decreases stress and increases happiness and brain function, and children are no exception to this. In 2013, a study of more than 20,000 participants found they were significantly happier outdoors in green spaces or natural habitats than they were in urban environments. Another study, from 2000, found that having access to nature close to home increases a child’s ability to cope with stressful events, and improves cognitive function. Forest School benefits are numerous – from growth in confidence and independence to improved behaviour and motivation in school, with a positive impact on achievement.

Visit Panshanger Park’s Forest School on any given weekday during term time and you will be met with a group (usually around 16) of excitable children running through the trees and learning skills from den building and fire lighting to mini-beast hunts and natural art. Classes always take place outside, through all weathers.

The Forest School offers six-week courses for schools, with lessons that feed into the national curriculum. While each session has a lesson plan, with learning objectives set, child-initiated learning is always encouraged to allow pupils the freedom to explore. This gives them a sense of freedom that is often a rarity in today’s society. I see the joy on children’s faces when we allow them to run and hide in an open space.

My proudest moments are when I see individuals open up in ways no-one expected. A recent example was a really quiet boy who came to Forest School. He spoke English as an additional language and really struggled to communicate at school. Forest School enabled him to communicate with his classmates through shared adventures and practical, hands-on activities. As a result it was the first place he felt comfortable playing with and communicating to his classmates and that to me really showcases the power of nature. He is now a boy who has the confidence to talk, make friends and get involved in school lessons – as a Forest School practitioner you can’t ask for more.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing our Forest School develop, growing to include a branded mini-bus that offers free collection and drop-off to local schools and child-size composting toilets. We have extended the project beyond school groups too. Last year we introduced a home education group so that home-schooled children can benefit from Forest School. We now also offer a six-week Nature Tots programme aimed at three to five-year-olds.

Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust has always strived to bring the local community closer to nature and Forest School has contributed to this on a large scale. Nearly 1,000 children have attended the school and we are looking forward to other significant milestones. Outdoor learning in Hertfordshire has an exciting future and in 2017 we plan to extend our programme to include a River School to educate children about that most precious of the county’s natural resources – our chalk rivers.

If you are a teacher or parent in Hertfordshire and would like to find out more about immersing your child or class in nature at Panshanger Park Forest School, visit hertswildlifetrust.org.uk

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