Each day primary-aged children from a range of schools visited our woodland to go on mini beast hunts, learn about natural history and ecology, and dip in our very large ponds. This particular group had been staying at our nearby farm and residential centre where, each morning and evening, they would take turns on a rota of duties – milking cows and goats, feeding and mucking out pigs, collecting eggs, or helping in the kitchens. Our aim was fairly unique at the time: to provide the children, whether on residential trips or day visits to the woods, with an immersive experience. Every opportunity we had to encourage learning was experiential – learning by doing and learning by being. The outcomes were profound, and the effects on the children were lasting.
Although we walked through the woods every day, when we had a residential group we would take them on one special and far deeper experience: a trek through the woods at night. With no torches. And not just that, the children (and staff) were left to sit alone (if they wished) or in pairs to be completely still and silent. In fact, the whole walk was taken without talking; the children and staff following quietly for perhaps half-an-hour, sometimes longer if the group were particularly responsive.
Again, the effect was profound. The feedback from teachers was always one of amazement that their children had coped so well with such a challenge, immersing themselves in an experience so decidedly alien from the lives they usually led in nearby towns and cities.
From that spring day 22 years ago we wind the clock forward to a world which has developed and evolved around us. It is far different now from anything we, as adults-parents-teachers, would recognise from our childhoods. Certainly the Y6 children on the walk with me that night in 1994 had a very different world to contend with – we had only just started to hear about the internet, computers were still the size of a small suitcase and “mobile technology” meant carrying something heavy and expensive in a bag across your shoulders. But even back in the 90s we were already talking about the dearth of opportunity for children to play outdoors, health and safety regulations stemming the flow of fun in playgrounds and less and less sport played in schools. We were also talking about human impact on our planet, the need for greater understanding about living sustainably and within our means and about the loss of natural habitats through the growth in housing and transport networks; messages as familiar now as 20 years ago.
I have now been teaching for 25 years and I have witnessed the great cycle of educational innovation, fashion and revision which many older colleagues told me about when I started. Now I have reached a point when I can reflect on what this has meant. Yet, what fascinates and motivates me more, rather than the changes, is the consistency in what learning means. Good parenting has always embraced the idea of boundaries and cuddles. Good teaching has always excited and enthralled, capturing imaginations and inspiring young people to excel. And children have always been children: they are brimming with energy and limitless curiosity, discovering their world.
When it comes to the debate about changes in childhood experience, the usual range of digital-age-related reasons can be rolled out. Yet the “modern life” tag is overused and too convenient – a lazy excuse, perhaps. Children still crave connection with the world around them. They have a need to understand how it works, how they can influence it and how it influences them, from how to make friends and communicate, to what happens when you poke a stick at something. As adults we are absolutely key in helping children make these connections and develop their understanding. We have the opportunity (and responsibility) to provide them with experiences and guidance in these early years, establishing values and norms which will ensure they are happy and productive throughout their lives.
The natural world is a visceral, real, messy and untidy experience, arguably well-suited to many children, and perhaps less so to adults! In the same way that vinyl is making a comeback, it is time to turn, or return, to the analogue world about us and find ways which children can experience the outdoors intimately, deeply and personally, where it is just for them. At the heart of this experience is the opportunity to just be outdoors with nothing more than sticks, logs, leaves, mud and perhaps a fire for cooking. Schools have become enthralled by the Forest Schools movement, which aims to take children out into the natural world and use this as a place to develop a closer connection with the natural world, learn skills and gain a sense of comfort and enjoyment “out of doors”. However, true learning comes from experience and too much structure stifles creativity. Therefore, providing a learning experience does not take much more equipment than a pair of sturdy boots and some clothes which can get grubby and that protect against damp! Walks in the woods at night in the New Forest were amongst the most exciting learning experiences that I have delivered in my career. There was no equipment, no learning objective or set of guidelines. Just me, the children and members of staff.
At our school Pennthorpe we are blessed with beautiful woodland and we try to make the most of this wonderful resource. By playing or just being in the woods the children learn to create, to imagine and to care and the more we can encourage this – at school or at home – the better their future will be. We know emotionally intelligent people become very successful, achieving more than those with higher IQs. Therefore, through an emphasis on learning outdoors, children develop empathy for the wider world and understand their place in it. It is a simple and lasting way for children to grow the emotional capability to manage their lives and relationships better in future. They won’t know it now, but they will thank you for it later.
Pennthorpe is a truly independent school for boys and girls aged 2-13. It is happily nestled in Rudgwick, on the Surrey/Sussex border near Horsham.
For further information please contact:
Mrs. Fiona Long – 01403 822 391 x 201