Food for the soul

How a Forest School course restored the spirits of an SWT manager

SWT marketing and communication manager Charlotte Magowan thought she knew what Forest School was all about. Then she signed up for a two-day taster...

“Halloooo! Can we come into the woods please?” Neil’s strident tones echoed across the frosty orchard where our motley crew, laden with assortment of boxes, bags and tools halted at the rustic bridge. An obliging blackbird chirruped an affirmative in the crisp morning air, so at nature’s signal we entered the welcoming wood that was to be our place of learning for the next four days.

While I already had experience of teaching in the woods, this was my first time at an official Forest School. I had read much about the movement and was keen to discover for myself exactly what it was all about and what it did for the children who attend. I don’t think I anticipated the effect it would have on my own body and soul.

Forest Schools knot training

Getting in knots over the basics of shelter building. 

Knotty tasks and upside-down fires

My new classmates were of different backgrounds and ages, from nursery leaders to special needs teachers, from volunteer leaders to event managers. They were all eager to explore nature’s verdant learning establishment.

Our first tasks form the cornerstone of Forest School activities: building shelters and lighting fires. After a knotty session which allowed the climbers and sailors in our group to excel, I trotted off with a couple of new friends to build our first shelter, using our recently acquired skills. It was surprisingly easy (albeit after a lengthy debate on the relative merits of almost every tree in the wood) and we dived in to enjoy luxuriating in our new abode.

The art of the upside-down fire was certainly novel to us all. This involved selecting sticks of certain diameters, little fingers and thumbs being handy indicators, and piling them up next to the fire site. We then constructed a Jenga-like stack, so the smaller embers would fall through to the next level, thus making it an efficient fire – and perfect for brewing a warming cup of tea.

Forest School upside down fire

Building an upside down fire

Children take control

With shelter and fire sorted, other activities could begin. The total delight of Forest School is that it is child-centred learning in its truest sense. The child decides what they would like to do and how they want to do it with a stimulus from a facilitating adult. Or they can choose to do something entirely from their own imagination, which was just the tonic I had been waiting for.

The exploration of our new territory was mind-boggling. Who knew that trees could sing, that a stick could turn into a windscreen wiper, that leaves gave flavour to ice cream, that mythical beasts called Rabhogs ravaged the forest, or that puppet creatures lurked around sunny tarpaulins to play with their shadows?

Forest School singing tree

This tree is singing!

Creative therapy

After the most delicious smoke-infused pizza baked in our fire, Pandora’s toolbox opened up yet another new world of creative opportunity. Using everything from a bow saw to a billhook, I managed to carve out a log dog (or was it a mouse?), a home-made charcoal pencil and even a hefty mallet, which became a firm favourite with our group. Kazoos were even more entertaining – our rendition of ‘London’s burning’ from the kazoo chorus was certainly worthy of the large auditorium in which it was performed, and was met with enthusiastic applause from the other group.

While sawing logs and whittling twigs, my new-found friends were most helpful and team-spirited, holding a body whilst I cut a head, offering opinions as to where orifices might be made to plant a tail, or holding the billhook as I raised the mallet to finely craft another creation. There was something distinctly therapeutic as we beavered away in the woods, focused on our task and letting our thoughts range free, far away from the hamster wheel of life and email.

Forest School whittling

I managed to carve out a log dog (or was it a mouse?)

Show me the magic

On my return home, the younger members of the family were impressed with the results of my new carpentry skills. However, I feel it was the process rather than the result that got me hooked on the whole Forest School concept. And that is where children too, of all abilities and temperaments, will definitely reap the rewards.

One young devotee explained Forest School as “a feeling you can’t put into words”. I wholeheartedly agree and I will return to the woods again and again. It had me at “Helloooo!”