WNA featured in Sunday Times

Root and branch revolution

Forest schools, an idea from Denmark, are sprouting up here, write Julie Henry and Sian Griffiths

It is an overcast morning, with a threat of drizzle in the air. In the heart of a Lancashire wood, a group of three and four-year-olds, kitted out in waterproof dungarees, is studying a spider’s web.

In the “woodland crèche near Blackburn, the children spend about six hours a day for up to three days a week in the open air. If a child wants a nap, they curl up on a hammock. Beyond the Walls outdoor nursery, which opened last year, is a forest school- one of a growing number in Britain that bases its curriculum outdoors.

The movement, which originated in Denmark, is based on the idea that outdoor education builds social skills and that children who take part develop greater confidence in their own capabilities than those in traditional schools.

Now the idea has hit the mainstream here with Michael Gove; the education secretary, approving the first free school with a forest-based curriculum. West Newcastle Academy, for four to 11-year-olds, will open this month.

The academy has enrolled 28 children so far and plans to accept 196 within six years. Located in Benwell, one of the poorest parts of Newcastle, it has been set up by the charity Kids & Us, which has been working in the city’s west end for 30 years.

“We wanted to think outside the box and decided this could really make a difference. The kids would learn through experience” says Leigh Davison, project manager for Kids & Us.

“It’s about getting them outdoors, following their own interests. A lot of these children have never been out in the woods. We can bring parents in to help them learn. We can build teamwork skills; get them away from TV screens.”

A survey by the newly formed Forest School Association has revealed that 10,000 teachers und early-years staff have trained as forest school leaders in the post few years. The number of nurseries, primaries and prep schools that have introduced “forest school” sessions to the timetable is now in the thousands.

“ln previous decades, it may well have been regarded as ‘alternative’ or ‘hippie’ but forest school has now well and truly entered the mainstream,” said Jon Cree, the association’s chairman. “People just realize that we have gone wrong. Children need to get outdoors more.” As the wind picks up in the woodland crèche near Blackburn, Diane Calvert, a mother of two and trained nursery man-ager who set up Beyond the Walls after being inspired by the forest kindergartens of Scandinavian calls the children round and produces a bag of feathers.

For the next hour, the group becomes engrossed, throwing them in the air, trying to catch a breeze, seeing whose feather can fly highest and travel furthest. “We do have activities but mostly we like the children to take the lead and use their imagination,” she says, watching them play. ”’they will do things like sit on a branch and pretend it’s a motorbike. There are rope swings, trees learn to climb and streams where they can fish with nets. ‘”The children’s stamina improves. They learn to make decisions to keep safe – if it has been raining, they know the trees will be slippy and not to climb so high. Their speech develops because they have to explain what they want because things are not to hand as they are in a nursery. They make decisions about things, so they become more independent.”

The contrast with the millions of children across the country spending their days in centrally heated schools, playing with plastic toys, typing on computers and gazing at the board, could not be more stark. Nonetheless, it has been tough persuading officials of the benefits. The Department for Education was initially sceptical that after spending two days a week outdoors, the children at West Newcastle Academy would learn to read, write and follow the national curriculum.

“Now, however, they have accepted that we can teach everything in three days in the classroom. They see the benefits of being outside as long as we guarantee to deliver the class-based stuff as well,” says Richard Evans, the school’s project manager. In fact, the staff aim to improve on the standard of education on offer elsewhere in the city, where the number of children leaving primary school unable to read properly is above the national average. Maria Maza, a mother of two, is a governor of the free school and keen to enrol her son, Tiago. Maza, who believes in learning through play, has already moved her oldest child, Alma, from one local school because she was unhappy with what she felt was a rigid approach to learning.

“The children were told to sit down and do as they were told. Now Alma is in a different school which is more creative and relaxed, and she loves it, says Maza. ln many nurseries and reception classes, the pressure is on to teach pupils the three Rs as quickly as possible, driven, in part, by the premise that an early start allows children from poor backgrounds to make up the deficit in their academic skills. In the private sector, the motivation is different: competition for the best prep Schools is so intense that four-year-olds are expected to be able to write in sentences before many can even hold a pen properly.

Either way, there is growing disquiet among parents that their offspring’s care-free childhood is being cut short by on agenda that is not of their making. The health benefits of outdoor ploy have also become a focus, in an era when childhood obesity is regarded of one of the biggest problems facing the NHS. for Richard Lane, a househusband, and his wife Claire, a doctor, enrolling Roz, their three-year-old “livewire”, in Beyond the Walls was one of the best decisions they have made. “When it’s a nursery day she bounces out of bed singing about going to the woods. She comes home with pockets full of stones and twigs and loads of stories,” says Richard. “The family pore over the photos of her in the woods. How many pictures can you look at of a toddler holding up a Lego brick or another crayon?”