Angel Road ‘Forest School’ project wins biodiversity award

For the final part in our series on the winners of the Norfolk Community Biodiversity Awards, CHRIS HILL talks to the team which revived a patch of wasteland in the corner of a playing field into a Forest School area for children.

Three years ago, this corner of a school field in Norwich was a barren wasteland, littered with rubbish and out of bounds to the young pupils.

But hard work and perseverance has transformed it into a priceless urban oasis where city children can go to learn about nature and safely explore the wonders of wildlife.

The 'Forest School' area, which has won the education category at the Norfolk Community Biodiversity Awards, was a combined project involving Angel Road Infants School, North City Children's Centre and the Pavilion Playgroup at nearby Waterloo Park.

Surrounded by streets of terraced housing, the site at Angel Road contains a pond, a camp fire circle and a host of native trees, fruits and wild flowers.

It is used for classes of children to make dens, pick blackberries, practise nature crafts or learn about plants and butterflies.

But it was very different story at the start of the project, when skip loads of dumped mattresses, washing machines and an old lawnmower were removed, and a tangle of head-high brambles had to be cut down.

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A design for the site was prepared by David Yates, landscape architect at Norfolk County Council, and then it was the turn of the children and their parents to get involved, with planting days to establish native trees such as hazel, birch, rowan and wild cherry, donated by the Woodland Trust.

Later, a grant was secured which allowed more tree species to be planted and in spring 2011 a pond was dug out which attracts frogs and damsel flies. A fox has also been spotted in the area.

Forest School leader Nicola Harrison, said: 'We wanted to make a natural space for children to be able to connect with nature and to be free to play and explore in a safe environment. We didn't want to have vegetables or something labour-intensive which they couldn't play around with.

'The Forest School sessions are very child-led. They are free to choose any activity – as long as they respect each other and respect the nature, they are free to explore. They can run around if they want and they can pick a plant.

'There are brambles and nettles here but it is controlled risk-taking for the children. It is real and it is hands-on. They are actually connecting with it.

'In school, it can be so prescriptive and all the statistics say children are not getting enough time outside. There's now this phrase of 'nature deficit disorder' and there is research saying if you don't connect to nature when you are young, then you never will.'

Shelley Baker, of the North City Children's Centre, said: 'For a lot of these children, it is the only chance they get to be outside.

'Although they have got Mousehold Heath, a lot of the parents said they didn't feel safe with their children in such a wide area. Here, they know that even if they cannot see them, they know they are safe. A lot of the parents are learning new skills as well.'

One of the parents is Sheila Baikie, who visits the area with her children Ethan, 6, Malachi, 4, and two-year-old Grace-Rose.

'They get lots out of it,' she said. 'Just having a wild space in the city and a safe place for them to go and have a bit of direction is brilliant. It gives them ideas and inspirations about how you can use the wildlife to make things – and do things they wouldn't be able to do in their back yards.'