At Canopy Forest School play-based learning is the way in which we track, follow, and allow holistic development to flourish. Each week we provide structured and unstructured learning experiences that enable our learners to explore, share and discover in their own unique ways.
Each session at Canopy Forest School is unique and follows the ideas and interests of the group. During our reflection time at the end of each session we discuss what we have learnt as a group and as individuals and we plan together how we would like to extend this learning or what we would like to move onto next. As the Forest School Leader, I take a lot of time after each session looking at my observations and the thoughts and ideas of the children to plan our next meeting. The planning is very organic in form and the journey that the children take us on is different to one that I would have planned myself which is refreshing and exciting. I have found that the more I have focused on and observed the children, how they play, interact, approach activities the more I understand them as individuals. Planning by putting the child at the heart of the learning is a wonderful way to work and as a classroom teacher as well, I now realise how much the education system’s way of planning has the curriculum at the heart and not the child. Being aware and curious about the play types, schemas and learning styles of the group has influenced the activities presented to the group.
Our observations of the play taking place in each session need to have as Cree and Robb point out:
“both the child/learner and Forest School context in mind while at the same time aware of our own values that influence our interpretation of observations we do or don’t see and hear. In order to do this, the Forest School leader needs be both a good seer and a good listener. Imaginative play, such an important aspect of Forest School with early years and primary school children, provides us with lots of opportunity to listen to child’s talk, helping us get ‘inside their head’.” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p279)
To really observe and take in what the children are doing as Forest School leaders we need to take away our filters and really look with “fresh eyes, in order to observe the truth” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p276). Cree and Robb discuss in their book Forest School and Nature Pedagogy (2021) the importance of being aware of our own filters-judgements, prejudices and values that might alter and affect our observations and we need to stop ourselves expecting what we expect to see and instead we need to be mindful and “engage in fully conscious practice when observing pupils” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p276). This is a skill that I am still working on and feel challenged by as in many ways I am trying to unravel some of my traits/skills as a classroom teacher. I am trying to balance my inbuilt need for order and control that I am used to using after 20 years of classroom teaching with the need of the child to experience, experiment a play in a chaotic way. Getting the balance right is crucial as the benefit and risk assessments and the safety and responsibility of the job needs to be carefully weighed up against allowing the students to experience an element of risky play, challenge, ownership, and freedom.
The adults role then takes many forms, and this depends upon the activities taking place, the weather and most importantly the needs of the participants (Appendix 1). The forest school leader needs to be skilled in being able to follow, observe and watch the intrinsic play motivations of the group reflecting on this and then building and scaffolding this into future sessions. They need to also understand and know when to step in, when to step back and when to advise and when to not. The Canopy Forest School policies on Teaching and Learning, The Role of The Forest School Leader and Play (Appendix 2) outline these duties and explains the importance of having an in-depth understanding of play. As Forest School leaders we need to observe everything as Cree and Robb suggest:
“….including the unforeseeable and unwelcome and include both the cognitive and emotional development of learners” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p279)
We need to be keenly aware of everything but of course we can only collect a small selection of evidence in each session for each child. Mary Drummond (2003) book Assessing Child’s Learning examines some vital questions that teachers and educators should ask themselves as they assess children’s learning. She defines assessment as a process in which teachers look at children's learning, strive to understand it and then put this understanding to good use. Drummond invites teachers to consider the choices they make in the process of assessment, and she suggests that there are three fundamental cyclical questions that we need to ask ourselves when observing the learning and development taking place these are:
1. How can we best put our understanding to use in our practice to intervene or not?
2. What is there to see, hear and feel?
3. How can we best understand what we see, hear, and feel?
At Canopy Forest School I have used many different observational methods (manual and automated as well as photographs and videos) to help me reflect on and refine the teaching and learning. These have given me an insight into the developments taking place, but they are limited to what I see so the act of talking and reflecting with the students to get more of an insight into their feelings and thoughts are also used so that a holistic picture is achieved. As Cree and Robb point out:
“If we are to understand learning and development, this cannot be reduced to a tick sheet: humans are far more complex” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p282)
I have found that the first six weeks have been a real learning curve for me. I have made lots of observations and tried to plan the next session based on what I felt and what my students were asking and requesting from me and their Forest School experience. It is only now after the baseline assessment period has ended that I have had the chance to sit back reflect and look back at all my observations. Looking through all my observations it is clear that most of the learning and my insight was gained during child initiated learning time. As it was during this section of each session that the students amazed me with their thinking, ideas, and showed me how they could use and adapt activities and resources in new ways.
During my reflection time I have had the chance to consider the growth and development of each student and the progress and growth of our community. My understanding of each student is always being refined and in hindsight it is the direction that I am not expecting each lesson to take which holds the most joy. The children have come up with so many great ideas that have helped to form new routines and props in our community for example they wanted to introduce a talking stick, have a king or queen of the forest every week who would sit on our story telling throne and made up a Canopy School song. I am now beginning to see more clearly that the more I allow the children and volunteers of the group to have ownership, feel appreciated and actively put their ideas into action the more connection, trust, and stronger bonds they form in our Forest School space.
During the first six weeks of the baseline assessment period, it was in many ways the activities that were the focus of each session especially because these were chosen and selected by the pupils. Below are a few examples of some of the activities that we have engaged in and the holistic area of learning that they helped us to develop:
·Social - social sharing of news, connecting as a team and group, social co-operation activities, sharing food together
· Physical- physical team games, den building, natural loose parts craft,
· Intellectual- questions and discussions about the changing season, the big question of the week, reflecting on session and learning and next steps, decision making and safety
·Communication-communicating to each other as a group, communicating support and encouragement to each other, communicating as a team,
· Emotional- giving each other emotional support and encouragement, helping and assisting others, expressing needs and feelings, bonding as a team
· Spiritual-Listening and absorbing the natural surroundings, connecting to each other, creativity, starting up the award ceremony ritual at the end of year half term.
I have observed many changes in the groups holistic development as they have become more comfortable and relaxed in the routines, relationships, and connections. I have tracked these changes in my notes/reflections from these sessions . I have also become very aware of what our next steps should be as a group and as individuals and how important strong relationship building is for developing a community of learning. As Cree and Robb point out:
“A community of learning also means involving the learners, as much as possible, in creatively exploring what is going on for all of us, thus the more we will become together. This is what embeds learning, “think, do, observe, review”.” (Cree and Robb, 2021, p290)
Canopy Forest School is built upon the strong pedagogy of Forest Schools as set out by the Forest School Association and the Archimedes Earth E.N.E.R.G.Y model. All these principles create a framework for working and are not a static step by step process. The six principles are based on a variety of educational theories and methodises and are central to our approach ethos, mission, and core values. Many positive outcomes have been documented and recorded for Forest School education over the years and these are mostly connected to self-esteem, self-confidence, resilience, and environmental identity.
Learning and development through play is about the journey that the participants take including the leaders and as reflective practitioners we are swept up by the students and follow their lead. As we do this, we learn more about ourselves and each other and this process grows organically within the natural environment of our Forest School woodland. One of the lessons that I have learnt during the six week observation period is that the most significant experiences often happen incidentally. I have also come to realise how important the reflective process is as this is the moment where all dots are joined up, connections and a deeper understanding is made.
It would be wrong of me not to admit that this process has not been easy. The past six weeks of leading a group and conducting baseline assessments have been hard work. Each session has brought its own challenges as the dynamics in the group have changed and altered.
I am not a classroom teacher nor a playworker and it is taking time to identify and be comfortable with who I am as a Forest School leader. It is very easy to get pulled into a romantic notion where you conjure up a picture of children playing happily together out in the woods. The reality is that it takes a lot of preparation and time, commitment, and grit, to set up, run, dismount, and then assess and plan each session. I have not been put off by the reality as the pure joy the children express each week, the pride they have shown in their club and personal development that each of them is making is keeping me going. I realise that I am now in a new learning zone where the theory is being applied, planning is being put into action and I am learning by doing. I would like to end by sharing a quote by Joseph Newton that depicts where I feel my group and I are now:
“We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life. But we can decide what happens to us. How we can take it, what we do with it-and that is what really counts in the end” (p186 Cree and Robb)
Cree Jon and Robb Marina, (2021), The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy, London, Routledge,
Drummond M, (2003), Assessing Children’s Learning, London, Routledge.