Yewstock School Forest School Pilot Project 2014-15
Yewstock School ran a pilot Forest School project during the academic year 2014-15. Following a period of informal research and training into the Forest School ethos, and having been persuaded that Forest Schools could have a beneficial impact in a wide range of areas, including self-esteem, communication and personal learning and thinking skills, class teacher Carrie Tiley undertook a BTec Level 3 Forest School Leaders Qualification. This in turn enabled a group of 9 Key Stage Two pupils to benefit from a wide range of Forest School activities.
Pupils, and indeed support staff, participated in and engaged with Forest School activities in a way that they rarely do during classroom based teaching and learning activities. In fact, one way to measure the success of the project could simply be the number of pupils asking “Mrs Tiley, please can we do Forest School again next week?”. During a class review of the academic year, photos and videos of Forest School sessions generated a very enthusiastic discussion of the pupils’ memories, with many able to describe the activities they took part in detail. When one considers that each child in the group has notable difficulties with memory, recall and communication skills, this is remarkable in itself. The Forest School project acted as enhanced “permission” to take pupils from the relatively sterile and manufactured classroom environment into a natural and ever-changing environment, which had observable benefits from the outset. Pupils, including those with ASD, visibly relaxed on entering the Forest School site, clearly enjoying the sights, sounds, smells and textures around them. Whilst a good deal of classroom time is often spent reminding children to sit appropriately on their chairs, at Forest School, pupils could sit, stand or lie in positions that allowed them to focus more on the task in hand and less on their posture. The fundamentally tactile and sensory nature of the surroundings and resources also matched the pupils’ learning needs. M and R in particular chose to spend a long time exploring the properties of the objects they found, leading to increased understanding, and also allowing opportunities to develop their descriptive vocabulary. As the six sessions progressed, the pupils’ clearly became more inclined to work cooperatively to achieve their goals. In the first session, each child was determined to collect the colours they needed to create their own colour rainbow, with only limited interaction between them. By the fourth, some were choosing to work in pairs to collect, transport and sort resources. During the last two sessions, where the group made hot chocolate and created a sensory story, there was a palpable sense of collective responsibility which noticeably improved the group dynamic within the class beyond the session. This development in social skills was a real highlight of the Forest School project.
The group had a wide range of individual needs from the outset, with several of the pupils presenting with social communication and attachment difficulties. Two pupils in particular were usually very dependent on support staff to settle to and complete academic tasks in class. The formulaic nature of the Forest School sessions allowed them to begin to predict and pre-empt transitions between activities, and even to initiate related activities independently. Furthermore the open-ended nature of many of the activities, for example making sound mobile and the texture rubbings, ensured success. With no right or wrong answers, pupils felt able to risk working independently without fear of failure. Where individual support was required, as the sessions progressed and the pupils became more familiar with the boundaries and routines, support staff were able to gradually reduce the intensity of their supervision and allow pupils independence.
Two target children were chosen for particular assessment as their in-class behaviour indicated low self-esteem. In the case of L, who lacked the confidence to speak in front of others with an audible voice, and to initiate interactions with her peers, there was a marked improvement in her communication skills over the six weeks. By the sixth session, she was seeking to communicate with other pupils and support staff about the task, and participating in the plenary session with very little prompting. With H, visible changes were less dramatic. However, her level of participation in tasks gradually improved over the six weeks. She was certainly able to engage with Forest School activities with less support than in the classroom, and she was obviously happier and more relaxed in the Forest School environment. The small signs of improvement in self-esteem indicate that a longer series of Forest School sessions could be beneficial. All staff working on the Forest School project were briefed about creating a positive learning environment using frequent and explicit praise before the sessions began. Valuing each child’s contributions to activities and discussions paid dividends, with all pupils responding well to praise and seeking to contribute to the sharing sessions. The fourth session, where each child shared their smelly potion and the group acted out its “magic” was particularly successful at enhancing the group dynamic, with pupils’ demonstrating unusually good turn-taking and listening skills. Several pupils, including one with complex physical and learning difficulties, responded particularly well to the “touch and praise” approach, deliberately repeating actions in order to elicit the positive response. Furthermore, the sharing of pupils’ work with parents and carers, by way of photos, comments and the taking home of completed “work” enhanced the positive value of the sessions. Several parents commented very enthusiastically, both to their children, and in their home-school books, about how lovely it as to see the children engaging in their learning and cooperating with their friends. Due to the complex nature of the group’s learning difficulties, progress against learning objectives tends to be measured across, rather than within individual lessons. It would be inappropriate to claim that pupils had met all of the learning objectives set for each Forest School session during the lesson itself. However, the Forest School sessions did provide an excellent opportunity to consolidate and develop their understanding of the key concepts, and to explore appropriate vocabulary. Informal observations and assessments of the pupils’ achievements were used to inform future planning, for example the need to address descriptive vocabulary (smooth and soft). Where the over-arching Personal Learning and Thinking Skills objectives are considered, most pupils demonstrated a marked improvement in both independent and cooperative skill across the sessions. All pupils participated more fully, and with less support, in the final session than they did in the first, which is a marker of the progress they each made during the project. In summary, the most visible benefits of the Forest School project at Yewstock School have been the level of independent engagement with activities demonstrated by the pupils, and their increased confidence to initiate and sustain interactions with each other.