Friday, 29 April 2016

Once Upon a Time in the Woods

They say first impressions are lasting. How true this is! The jaw-dropping reaction to my first session at a local forest school.

Once upon a time there was a city, a big city with lots of people and cars and buses and areoplanes.  In the middle of the city right next to all these people, cars, buses and aeroplanes, was a wood. Not a very big wood but a beautiful one with tall trees, dappled clearings, colourful flowers and mysterious bugs. This was not an ordinary wood; it was magical, with trees that spoke, insects as big as your hand and trees as high as sky scrapers.

These are not my words but those of a handful of 3 to 9 year olds at a forest school in Manchester. To the children it is many things; a haven, a place of solitude and learning and, above all, a place where you can come together with friends and make it anything you want it to be. Last week it was a puppet theatre, the week before that it was cafĂ©…..

The school is far removed from the mainstream, assessment-driven, dare I say ‘factory,’ state schooling we currently allow our children to enter.  It is free from walls, myriads of rules and overly restrictive attitudes.  It allows children a real freedom.  Freedom to think, share, talk, learn and, most of all, play. There are few resources provided as the wood itself provides a rich array of media for children to explore, experiment and utilise readily in their play.  The result is a group of children who have a rich vocabulary, burgeoning self-confidence, exemplary negotiating skills and imaginations that are so diverse and rich that it takes some keeping up with.

Don’t get the incorrect impression, these are not feral children.  They have an order to the day that, whilst familiar to them, is in no way restrictive. Instead it fits around their interests and fascinations.  They continue play that was started the previous day or even the previous week.  In fact, they are indulged in these interests by the adults present who observe quietly and take part in their play by invitation only.  We are asked to taste tea, help with menus and listen to newly composed songs.  We watch and see children helping each other, feeding off each other’s imaginations and, ultimately, learning from one another. This is holistic learning. The day isn’t divided into compartmentalised subject chunks where ‘never the twain’ shall meet. (If only life were so ordered.) The learning that takes place is not that which helps them pass exams but which empowers them with life skills: They confidently use adult tools to make wooden objects; they cook their own lunch (and wash up afterwards.) They develop the confidence to climb trees with no adult support and they have lots and lots of discussions. (The talk is endless)

Waiting to gain entry on my first day, a large group of children were sitting playing a game.  I asked them if someone would let the leader know I was here. Five minutes later I was still there, waiting for them to nominate, put forward a motion and then vote on who should be the one to seek out the adult. Far from being aggravated for not being let in, I was stupefied into silence by the actions that unfolded. (And that takes some doing.) This is democracy in action and all at primary school age!

Reflecting later at this ‘full on’ yet wholly engrossing and captivating time spent in some local woods, I thought just how lucky these children were. Lucky to be able to roam, climb, investigate, deliberate and procrastinate whenever they liked. Lucky to be listened to and taken seriously. Lucky to be free to make connections with others as well as the natural world around them. Remind me, how many children do this these days?