Sowing Seeds

A Rotarian Perspective on Forest Schools

Forest School at Westfield School Bourne End
Forest School at Westfield School Bourne End

John Dunsterville, Bourne End and Cookham Rotary, 28th January 2022

I was brought up in Farnham Common and my local school was East Burnham Primary School, right on the edge of Burnham Beeches. Our classes went on many nature rambles, in all kinds of weather and we collected leaves, flowers and bark and observed fungi, insects, butterflies, frogs, fish, squirrels, rabbits and birds. We also played by the ‘dips’ and ponds, making camps and getting muddy and sticky from the sappy trees we climbed. Looking back to the 50s it was a fantastic period of my life and has given me a lasting love of the environment.

Academic subjects and ticking boxes seemed to be the order for later scholastic endeavors, while outside activities were always sport and even now the sight of a rugby ball and cricket bat fills me with dread! Now however all schools have a more open attitude to the environment, and Juniors may be involved with planting bulbs, creating gardens and caring for chickens etc.

This is where Forest Schools come in, originally starting in the early 20th Century with outdoor activities but properly developed into the Forest Schools Association in 2012. Regardless of any special needs, a regular engagement with the outdoors in most weather conditions, has an amazing positive impact on both schools and pupils alike.

What do the children get out of it? - Confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting, and it’s fun! They experience the awe and wonder of the world, look at nature directly, I'll bet even David Attenborough started small, perhaps looking at an earwig, or a butterfly. 

The Early Years curriculum has entire Schemes of "Work devoted to the World around Us". Science, Maths, Language, Arts and more are promoted by these early experiences in the miniature jungle that is the bit of untidy woodland at the end of the path. Why - there might even be fairies and dragons! 

It has proved particularly beneficial to special needs children who struggle in a rigid classroom environment and FS learning/projects can be carried over into classroom-based learning very successfully.

What do Schools get? – A chance to share the load of education but mainly the feeling of wellbeing which filters into the classroom. A chance to witness development of craft, art, and informal contact with other pupils. FS provides so many wins in developing resilience, risk-taking, collaboration, creativity and more. FS can be adapted to accommodate every need, including for those children who have personal physical challenges; schools need a bit of space and the will to make it work. It is now a legal requirement for all junior school aged pupils to spend more learning time outdoors. 

What can Rotary get out of Forest Schools? Through engagement with local schools and staff there is an ongoing potential for Rotary involvement, with spinoffs of Rotary presence and membership. From a point of view of District Grants it certainly ticks many positive boxes and can get more hands-on involvement with the community. It's a PR win, if the Rotary and public are engaged with activities that help schools. The Environment is now Rotary’s seventh area of focus.

Some quotes:

From the FSA: 

"Forest School is an inspirational process that offers ALL learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem, through hands on learning experiences in a local woodland or natural environment. Forest School is a specialised approach that sits within and complements the wider context of outdoor and woodland learning."

From two school governors:

"One can learn an awful lot from a small child whilst sitting round a campfire cooking marshmallows! -  A cost effective and positive addition to the normal scholastic learning experience in a safe environment. – The ability of handling tools, building fires, camps and observing and feeling nature is giving a good attitude and grounding for the needs for coping with an uncertain future. While having fun, pupils learn science and social skills in a natural positive way, and feeds the imagination."

"Forest School is a feeling you can’t put into words." – student age 9

"This is the best day of my life!" – student age 8 (first day experience from a sullen boy not good at classroom learning and interaction with others)

Retired Rotarian:

"I really enjoyed making mud kitchens for our local school, best use of my old workshop. Small outlay but a big return."

"It gets staid old Rotarians out in the fresh air where they can surprisingly easily connect with young people and re-connect with their younger selves!"  

In my view we are planting seeds, growing children, growing the community and hopefully growing Rotarians too! 

The Forest School really is a feather in the cap of our club, and I in my stint as club president will ensure an ongoing Rotary presence with Forest School projects – what’s not to like! 

John Dunsterville 76½.

Read more at 

Photo credits:  

Bryony McCombe - Forest School Leader of Westfield School, Bourne End

Carrington Infants of Flackwell Heath

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