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How we use "next steps" to help us progress and aid individual learning and development

This blog post would like to discuss and share how we use” next steps” at Canopy Forest School to help us move the learning and holistic development on. To do this I would first like to discuss what the term "next steps" mean and what their true purpose is.

“Next steps” are important and are a way for practitioners to support the children in their Forest School with the many aspects of their individual holistic development. “Next steps” are closely linked to the observations that we make and the planning process. How we implement our “next steps” into our practice at Canopy Forest School varies greatly. It depends on a multiple of factors such as looking specifically at each child’s development, thinking carefully about the tools and skills we will introduce and how these “next steps” can be put into place during spontaneous activities.

The observations that we collect especially during our six-week baseline assessment period allow us to record what a child is doing and how they are behaving. We observe many different aspects of their holistic development. We especially focus on Howard Gardner's work on "Multiple Intelligence"(1983), Bob Hughes' "Taxonomy of Play" (2002), Archimedes Earth quick capture forms which are based around Leavers' work on wellbeing and engagement (1980) and emotional intelligence. We also use The Archimedes Earth 5R Character Scale, 5C's Emotional Wellbeing Star as well as a holistic development observation sheets (Appendix 1).

These observation forms help us to focus and make informed personal judgements on what a child’s strengths and weaknesses are. They also allow us to build up a picture of each child, give us a baseline of their skills, think about what the possible next steps should be and assist us to learn and develop as practitioners. From this point we can begin to think about how we can scaffold each child's individual interests and provide them with the correct level of support so that they can improve in an area they are interested in.

Support or "Next Steps" can be offered in a variety of ways for example by asking probing questions such as "why have you done it like that?" which encourage critical thinking. Praise can be used as a "next step" to keep students motivated and suggestions of ways to do things differently can also be used. Consequently the "next steps" are not just about focusing on what a student "can't do" but they are also about how the practitioner can aid them in their development and progress.

They help us to think about how we can introduce more challenging activities which help and strengthen the student's knowledge and skills. "Next steps" can be covered many times during a session as we challenge learning and make teaching points as we go along. Having "next steps" is about understanding what is happening and what our role is in the interaction. ‘Next Steps’ are integral to our observations and should not be an ‘add on’. They are not targets for the children – they are our own ‘next steps’ to focus on to inform our teaching.

The term "next steps" is one that is used continually in education and learning. However, a problem with this term as Dr Sue Allingham states is that:

" it has become part of our common daily vocabulary and has gradually begun to dictate a method of ticking off a linear progression through a set of statements. The ‘next step’ is filed away, ticked off, and then left. But that’s entirely missing the point. ‘Next steps’ are not something decided from a statement, and then recorded to stand alone. " (Allingham, (2019) blog)

Consequently, the "next steps" that I have put together for the students at Canopy Forest School are developments that we will work upon throughout our learning journey and subsequent sessions that they will attend this year. We will focus on them and think about how we can build and develop these areas in incidental learning opportunities, focused skill work, conversations and through the routines that take place every week.

The importance of the of the long-term Forest School Programme is very much tied up in the idea of "next steps " as these can only take place when students are given time and space to develop and progress. Learning is not linear as Greg Bottrill points out:

"It interweaves, waxes and wanes, and it's the role of the facilitator to recognise this and use play skilfully to reshape understanding or clear misconceptions" (2018, p50)

Forest School education is meant to take place over a long period of time where the students get to experience different seasons, weather conditions, and become part of the ebb and flow of the natural world. It is also an educational programme that is concerned and based upon neuroscience which supports the idea that to create new neural pathways we need consistent exposure, and this takes time. Sarah Blackwell explains this beautifully and writes:

"In Forest Schools, the outdoor opportunity is provided consistently over a period of seasons. Neuroscience supports the presupposition that to create opportunities for the myelination of neural pathways and for neural development, consistent and sustained exposure is required in a relaxed and positive learning environment. This consistent exposure to positive experiences that are relaxed, nurtured, supported and role modelled by key adults and peers are in the same key for the development of empathy, time, space, experience, compassion and love to grow from its small seed of potential in the brain into a positive and life enhancing empathetic vision of self, others and the world indeed takes time." (Blackwell, (nd) p1:3)

The repetition of routines, building familiarity, trust, and bonds with other members of the group and leaders can only happen if attendance is regular. Stability, security, and a strong sense of place are all essential factors for developing self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence. Added to this is the forest school focus on child-led learning and for this to be effective we need to get down to the child's level. Having a shared experience together is important as you become an ally sharing in the students thinking, interests and fascinations and this takes time. The more time you give this the better you get at having conversations, listening and thinking about their interests and fascinations and the more you are able to model, engineer activities and enquires that skilfully take the children on and helps them to take their "next steps". Knowing the student's next steps, means that you need to have a good understanding of your students and a firm grip of the expectations of the Forest School programme and general child development. Having all this understanding and knowledge at hand during each session means that you can make steps of progress without being mechanical.

Enjoying and being engaged with the students on their learning journey and our own is a wonderful and powerful shared way of making next steps. As Blackwell writes:

"It is also suggested that it is not only the presence of the child in nature for prolonged periods can also be significantly enhanced in the company of an enthusiastic adult, who shares to some extent their own passion and values. It is the experimentation and exploration through the seasons and the ability to some degree to be independent and self-determinate in the learning process that has enabled children to develop and attribute a deeper value to nature through direct association, as opposed to those who did not have the opportunity or that the experience was disassociated, for example through books or the television". (Blackwell (nd)p1.3)

Consequently, next steps are an essential part of any long-term programme because it is part of an organically changing systems that naturally needs feeding and nurturing for more growth to take place.


Appendix 1: Observation Proformas


Allingham Sue, (2019) "What is the true purpose of next steps?" Blog post,,

Blackwell Sarah, (c1988-2020) Archimedes Forest School Model, Archimedes Earth, Sheffield, p1:3

Bottrill Greg, (2018) Can I go and Play Now? London, Sage Publishing, p49, p50

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