Thursday, 27 February 2014

Night Time Forest School

Slightly misleading title as this was not really a Forest School session but a session ABOUT Forest School that was delivered on a cold dark evening in February.

I've been guest speaking at New College in Swindon for around six years now on Forest Schools and Outdoor Play. I have had the pleasure of working with students doing Childcare at Level One to Health and Social Care teenagers and Foundation Degree and HND students studying Early Years. Each group is different and I always come away having had a truly special time.

Last night’s session was two hours to give the students an overview of where Forest School has come from and where it is currently. I try to do this through a serious of photos on a standard PowerPoint, video clips and some practical time too. Anyone who runs Forest School sessions – and I don’t – knows that to truly understand FS you have to do it and feel it and be there, not watch a PowerPoint. But on the other hand if we can get something into education about FS for students who are looking at a career with children we may light a spark that they carry on into their careers.

Usually when I do a session the majority of it is outside and New College are lucky to have a large grassed area opposite with willow and oak trees and for longer sessions  a wonderful mature woodland and lake ten minutes walk away. However, both of those areas are heavily used and even on daytime sessions we have come across all manner of broken glass, pretty grotty rubbish and other things that you wouldn't want to step on in the dark.

I had asked all of the students to bring a jam jar which they all had so after an initial 'what is FS' we went for a collecting walk around the immediate area, which happened to be a large car park with exceptionally well manicured bushes. Literally not a fallen leaf to be found! The group managed to pick up some bits and pieces and we headed up to the classroom.

We looked at who runs FS training locally – the lovely Ruth Parsons at Woodland Learning who sits under the Archimedes umbrella, as well as Brdgwater College  and the history of FS there. I touched on FEI   FEN & LOtC and we watched the Bristol zoo Wild Place video ('It makes you feel kind of 'free' chokes me up every time!) Then settled down to a spot of creativity. I had taken some violets and hellebores from my garden as well as a basket of stuff from Scrapstore. So whilst the ladies created I set out a load of printed resources and took some photos.

The finished items were all different although had the same kind of Spring feel. When students are really engrossed in an activity I like to wade in and firmly say ‘Ok, put that down, we’re finished now!’ And insist that they do put it down – over the years I have had to be quite forceful in my manner. I do this to really push home the point that when children are engrossed the last thing we want to happen is some adult waltzing over and telling them to take that den down because it’s snack time, or breaking up a marvellous Lego model because it is time for story. But I couldn't bring myself to do that last night so just talked it through. 

 We discussed offering a provocation such as the jam jars but not making them the be all and end all, they can give structure - usually more needed for adults who need a plan, but once outside let children go with the flow. I touched on risk and 'not wrapping children up in cotton wool' but I know that a lot of practitioners have difficulty with this one when they get back to their settings and schools. One previous student told me she took conkers into school and was told to take them away again because a child had a nut allergy. Not a conker allergy, a nut allergy.

Wonderful spring mobile
I had taken tea-lights in case anyone wanted to make their jar into a lantern but had luckily forgotten the matches as Tutor Dawn pointed out the smoke alarms in their new building. It would be great to have taken them all outside as a group and light them though.

We ended with a five minute ‘find two ideas to take home’ from the printed resources and the students left holding their  beautiful spring creations.

Thanks guys :)

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sun and Shadows

Despite the horrendous damp weather I managed to have a lovely Saturday morning at Brambles Pre-School a couple of weeks ago. The drive down by the side of the Avon showed many fields where the river had burst its banks, the road into the village had been flooded and looked as if a giant biscuit cutter had cut chunks of the tarmac out of the surface.

The staff and children at Brambles spend 80% of their time outside in their large outdoor space with a small wood next door. The children are greeted in the village hall car park and have to walk across a footpath at the edge of a field to get to pre-school so everyone is dressed ready for the weather when they arrive.

I'd been asked to go and run a session to bring in a few new ideas. The weather looked quite rainy so I took a backpack of different options but we were really lucky and managed to create several ideas with an old sheet, some mud, clay and the sunshine!

I like to take the minimum of resources with me when I work outside as I want people to be able to use what they have locally without having to spend lots of money on new things. The costs for this session were the clay and I already had the old sheet.

The ladies made some beautiful boggle puppets...

I love the variety of  'faces' using just what could be picked up in the playground. I took some terracotta clay and they already had the grey.

I think the one above looked a bit 80s, could be the 'tache!

We strung up the old sheet with a lot of discussion about knots. Some of the staff have Forest School qualifications but had trouble remembering their knots, come on girls! They have a great outdoor shelter on site which we were able to use and tied the sheet quite high, we'd have put it lower for children. It would create a good talking point with them about where best to 'catch' the sun. There's an interesting video clip about shadows which would be good for older children.

I do like a playful team and they certainly were at Brambles!

As well as using the sheet for shadows on a sunny day it could also be used as a the 'stage' to hide the puppeteers on a cloudy day.

To complement the 'stage' we cut some triangles from the remaining sheet and made some bunting which the ladies decorated by using Hapa Zoma (leaf bashing!) and also made twig brushes with hazel sticks and then painted with mud. They were a really inventive group and made some very beautiful bunting.

We finished with a bit of brainstorming; going through books and pdfs to leave the setting with a bank of new ideas that they could do with resources that they already had. A windswept walk back across the field to the car and still no rain!

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Open Ended Spaces

I think everyone is familiar with the term loose parts and we all know a massive sandpit and different textures with some ups and downs and different levels makes a great outdoor play space, but I just wanted to touch on actual spaces within that play environment specifically man made structures.

When I first started working in early years 20 odd years ago - yes, that long! - we all had a Wendy House. I think half way through my NVQ 3 that term became well outdated and swapped for play house, fifteen years later when I finally got round to do my degree times had changed again and 'open ended' was a word that was often bandied about.

The best open ended den structure inside or out is either a cardboard box or a sheet over some chairs or a table. Non gender specific, ooodles of opportunity and can change from a lost world of dinosaurs to a full on birthday party boogie spot in a matter of minutes. I was flicking through my Facebook albums today to find some examples of great open ended structures, so here we go...

The first one is a re-cycled den. I saw a similar one at Wychwood Festival - lovely little  festival den video here - I was asked to run a workshop at a pre-school's evening summer fete so amongst other things took some bamboo poles and fabric from scrapstore. We cut elder rounds to poke on the top of the bamboo and arranged the poles in a semi circle around an existing den under the trees. The children - and parents! - loved weaving the fabric in and out and it quickly built up into a colourful curve that in total cost about £4 to make. We ran out of fabric and ended up cutting up carrier bags and plastic aprons!

Denbuilding workshop, Mansion House Pre-School
 This next one is at a new nursery with a garden made up of several levels with a few big drops. They managed this by fencing the top part with wood, cutting peep holes in the wood and then adding an old windsurf sail as a roof which is great as it has a large see through circle in it for sky gazing or watching raindrops.

Snowdrop Cottage
 This is a structure on a nursery with a really windy play area backing on to the village playing field. They created this great open ended structure which could be added to with cushions and blankets, woven through, topped with branches, sparkly muslin or camo net to create infinite possibilities.

Neston Pre-School
 This next triangle is not big enough to sit in - but I think you could make a bigger one - but is a really versatile piece. Could be a shop, farm, cafe, garage, dolls house... the list is endless. It could also house something new everyday to spark curiosity, a couple of beautiful shells, a pile of conkers or even just a sprinkle of sequins.

Box Pre-School
 This is not so much a den but more of an example of real open ended outdoor play in a public space. A colleague (Hello Ella!) put this in to an area that would be used by both the village and prisoners waiting centre. Families may have travelled a long way for a visit and this gave the children somewhere to let off a bit of steam or sit and chat. I'm sure you can already imagine several games that could be played here.

Erlestoke Prison
 I feel this next example is one of the best. It has pots and pans laying around which suggests a mud kitchen but the whole thing is on massive castors so can be pushed around the woods. It can be sat in, laid in and stood next to. It could be a stage, a snug or a garage or shop just like the triangle above.

Woodland Adventurers
So whether you have a roof, wheels or walls, keep it really simple and truly open ended to create as many opportunities as possible. And if you can't afford to put anything new in, you know what to do, get a cardboard box!