Family Matters: Sheffield education students learning forest schools skills

Hallam University forest schools presentation day: students looking on having finished their celebratory baked potatoes and the children were stoking up the fire for baked bananas! Children stoking the fire are Rhia Moss and Tom Bentley with tutor Lorna Fisher
Hallam University forest schools presentation day: students looking on having finished their celebratory baked potatoes and the children were stoking up the fire for baked bananas! Children stoking the fire are Rhia Moss and Tom Bentley with tutor Lorna Fisher
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Hallam University childhood studies students have been learning forest school skills from a lecturer who has taught youngsters in the Australian Bush.

A group of 44 second-year students at Hallam received their certificates on Tuesday after taking a course in teaching forest schools skills, run by senior lecturer Philippa Thompson and city Woodland Officers Jon Dallow and Lorna Fisher, both based at Ecclesall Sawmill.

The students learned practical skills such as fire lighting, using a bow saw and building weather-proof shelters, as well as studying the latest research on the subject.

Philippa became passionate about the advantages of outdoor learning for children when she worked in Australia. She said: “The children came out into the Bush for three days. It was part of every school curriculum.

“We use to take them on Bush walks. I had to learn a lot about Australian flora and wildlife! We had to learn how to deal with snakes and leeches.

“I worked at a girls’ school so you can just imagine what it was like when 15-year-old girls got leeches on them.

“They also did a lot about team building as well, with activities like raft building, and learned how to build a shelter and put up their tents.”

The idea of forest schools, where children learn through being outdoors, came from Denmark in the 1990s.

Research suggests that children benefit health-wise as well as academically and it is becoming more popular in Sheffield schools.

Philippa teaches the students activities that will help to teach the children they will work with all about flora and fauna.

She is also keen to encourage the students to get the children to take some risks too, within certain safety parameters.

“Some of it is about not being afraid to take risks and allowing children to take them. A seven-year-old can be taught to use a bow saw to make a woodland necklace.

“They can whittle a stick to toast marshmallows with and learn how to light a fire.

“It’s stuff that children aren’t usually allowed to do these days.

“You learn so much by doing it. They have to work together.”

She added: “There’s so much research on risky play and what it gives to children, like self-esteem and self-confidence.”

Philippa soon realised that the students would have a lot to learn about doing outdoor activities themselves.

She said: “They hadn’t had much outdoor experience really. They are probably a product of the fact that children don’t play outside as much any more.

“Some of them turned up in the woods in their espadrilles! I had to talk quite a bit about appropriate clothing.

“We do a before and after fashion show as part of the module, taking photographs to show what they’re wearing three weeks later.”

She’s keen that the students learn to wear the right clothing because she has seen outdoor sessions being cut short when children were having fun because the adults were getting cold.

Philippa has been pleased with the positive response she got to the course. “The majority have been so taken with it, saying, ‘This is amazing, I’m really enjoying it, I must do this with children’.

“I’ve now got a cluster of them who want to do a master’s degree in environmental education and research projects, when they wouldn’t have had the opportunity necessarily. Forest schools are still relatively new in this country.”

The students were presented with their practical skills qualification in Ecclesall Woods by Philippa’s son, Tom Bentley, aged eight, who has helped on the course.

The group also had another opportunity to practise fire building, whittling sticks and of course toasting marshmallows.