Toddlers get lessons from mother nature
Chris TracyStandfirst - How do you get children interested in their natural environment? CHRIS TRACY reports on one Norwich initiative called Forest Schools where little ones get to explore their local woodsIt is a grey winter afternoon, but the toddlers processing down the street like a gaggle of wayward geese are in high spirits.Chris Tracy
How do you get children interested in their natural environment? CHRIS TRACY reports on one Norwich initiative called Forest Schools where little ones get to explore their local woods
It is a grey winter afternoon, but the toddlers processing down the street like a gaggle of wayward geese are in high spirits. Accompanied by assorted parents, grandparents and helpers, they are bound for Lion Wood, one of Norwich's few tracts of ancient woodland, and their weekly Forest School session. Swapping the pavement for a muddy path, they slow down perceptibly as the first bushes loom - they know the drill. One by one, they greet the lone oak tree standing, as if on guard duty, at the wood's edge, and ask for permission to enter. For only when this rite has been satisfactorily performed can the fun really begin…
Based at the Thorpe Hamlet and Heartsease Sure Start centre, and led by trained and accredited leader Nicola Harrison, the Lion Wood group is one of many Forest Schools to have sprung up in Norfolk over the last few years.
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Initially developed in Sweden in the 1950s, these aim to promote the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of youngsters through interaction with the natural environment. Having been widely adopted in Denmark in the 1980s as a response to a lack of nursery school buildings, the scheme was first introduced to the UK in 1995, following a visit by lecturers and nursery workers from Somerset.
Impressed by the approach's positive effect - children were seen to grow in confidence, take greater responsibility for themselves and show increased respect for the natural world - they developed their own programme. Since then, Forest Schools for toddlers and older children up to secondary school-age have proliferated across the country.
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In Lion Wood, the group sits in a circle as the 'talking stick' is passed around and everyone says hello. Turnout is down on the dozen or so who often attend, presumably because of the weather - high winds meant a cancelled session last week (authentically experiencing the great outdoors is one thing; squashed toddlers quite another). The children leap up as Nicola fetches her rucksack and invites everyone to guess what she has brought today.
Ever-enthusiastic, Joseph declines to make a suggestion, instead opting for the more direct approach of running over and peering in. Bailey is not far behind him - they tend to operate as a double act - while Arthur hangs back and hopefully ventures 'crayons?' He is not far off the mark - charcoal and pieces of bark to draw on are brought forth, and he happily sets about creating a masterpiece. Meanwhile, Joseph and Bailey, evidently in the mood for less sedentary pursuits, run off to embark on an increasingly shriek-laden game of hide-and-seek.
That the children can go off and do their own thing, provided they respect their surroundings, is central to the Forest School philosophy, as Nicola explains. 'The extent to which activities are child-led, so that the children gain confidence in taking and managing risks, is what makes Forest School different from other outdoor activity schemes. Also, by spending a relatively long period of time - usually about two hours - visiting the same site each week, they really get to immerse themselves in the local natural environment, building up their confidence and knowledge.'
Gayle Philpot, whose daughter Bailey is a Lion Wood regular, agrees. 'Bailey really enjoys the sessions, and I like the fact that the children can enjoy themselves independently without any toys - they just love being outside and making their own fun.'
As plenty of fresh air and exercise are also part of the deal, it is little wonder that there is a general clamour for the refreshments proffered mid-way through the session - apple cups. With Joseph and Bailey still in thrall to hide-and-seek, Arthur and Bel are at the front of the queue as the apple halves and spoons are handed out and they set about scooping out the core. Then, like mini Ray Mears's, they drink orange juice out of the makeshift vessel as a prelude to polishing off the apple.
Quiet descends while the children sit contentedly supping, but it is only temporary - a mournful whimper alerts everyone to the fact that Arthur's apple cup is leaking juice down his front. While his mum sorts him out, Nicola suggests that everyone go and gather sticks for a pretend campfire (the ground is far too damp for a real one). Once constructed, this then becomes the focus for a brief, toddler-friendly talk on fire safety before a quick sing-song and a concluding pass-round of the talking stick, so that everyone can say what they enjoyed about the session.
More for information, call the Forest Schools Coordinator on 01553 774023.