Forest schools are highly regarded centres that inspire pupils to develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning in a natural environment. Whilst many schools use these centres for one-off day trips, the benefits are limited because of the infrequency of visits and because only a small number of pupils get to go.
The ideal situation would be to have a suitable ‘natural environment’ area on your school premises where all children could have access to nature all year round. This way, everyone can take part and the benefits can be sustained.
Whilst some schools are lucky enough to have such an area within their grounds, many do not. However, this does not mean you cannot go some way to creating a natural environment. In this post, we’ll explain how this can be achieved.
Identifying an Area
The first thing you need to do is identify the part of your school premises which you want to use for your forest school nature area. Ideally, it will be a place which has the following qualities:
- It is naturally grassed. (There are ways around this if needed.)
- It can be sectioned off from the playground and reserved for special use.
- It gets sunlight.
- It has sufficient space for your needs. (How many children will you want to have access at any one time?)
- If it already has established trees, even better.
Getting The Right Groundworks
The best ground on which to create a natural environment is one which has soil and grass. This way you have the right environment for planting and for attracting the fauna that lives in the soil and grass.
If this is lacking, there are two alternatives. You can create raised beds on top of hard surfacing which can then be turfed over, or you can use a different type of playground surfacing, such as rubber mulch, in combination with a series of planters.
For a real forest school environment, you should plant trees in your nature area. Trees encourage a much wider ecosystem to develop, they create shading and they make the area look far more natural rather than simply garden-like.
If you have a naturally grassy area, it may be possible to plant trees directly into the ground. However, this may be impractical if the roots are likely to cause problems with building works or if you are using raised beds. However, this does not mean you cannot have them.
Many trees will grow perfectly well and to a reasonable, manageable size in large, deep planters or pots. Doing this also enables you to install a range of different trees, such as a mix of conifers and deciduous trees. You may even want to plant trees which blossom in the spring or which fruit in late summer.
One of the benefits of creating a forest school environment is enabling children to observe and learn about nature in its natural environment. To do this, you need to encourage wildlife to move into the area.
This can be achieved easily with a few simple pieces of equipment. For example, our insect habitats, ladybird towers, bird tables and butterfly boxes are great for encouraging birds and insects to your area. Add a small, shallow pond for frogs and newts and you are on your way.
Hide The School Walls
To create the impression that your forest school nature area is a little more secluded and away from the school building, you can install planters with trellises. These will enable you to plant climbers, tall shrubs or bushes that can create a green, living boundary that shields your area from the rest of the school.
When this is done, children visiting the nature area will really feel like they are leaving the school and entering a natural environment. This will enable them to feel more relaxed and better inclined to undertake the outdoor learning tasks you have prepared for them.
Add Some Plants
With lots of different planters to choose from, it is possible to plant a wide range of flora in your nature area. However, if you are trying to recreate a forest school environment, ideally, you should grow plants which are found within woodland areas: ferns, bluebells, wild garlic, nettles, primroses and foxgloves, for example.
Planting a range of flowers that bloom throughout the year can ensure there is always some colour in your area. You can also plant fruiting plants such as brambles. Adding a few old logs will also encourage interesting looking fungi to move in.
Equipping Your Forest School Area
To help children learn in your nature area, there is a range of equipment you can use. For example, you can install nature boards to help them identify different types of plants and wildlife or, for more detailed examination, you can also use an investigation table or a discovery planter.
Learning through play should also be encouraged and there is plenty of den making equipment you can use, together with hollow logs and crooked benches. At ESP Play we have an entire range of Wild Wood equipment, inspired by nature, which may be the ideal complement to your forest school.
Giving children access to a natural environment can benefit them in many ways, including improving their learning skills and social and emotional well-being. For most schools, providing children with such an environment is something that happens only occasionally, on school trips. However, from reading this article, you should have some idea how you can provide it for all children, all year round, even if your school lacks its own natural space.
If you are considering creating a forest school style nature area at your school, call us on 01282 43 44 45 and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can help.