I remember my very first visit to Alver Valley Schools. Walking up the front path, you get a glimpse of what the grounds have to offer through the appropriately coloured green railings. Laid out before you stretching from one side of the schools to the other and beyond is an enormous school field with colourful playgrounds and nestled in one corner was a woodland. “Is that ours too?” I tentatively asked. And so, the woodland resource, which had been abandoned and rarely used, was a seed that was planted in my thoughts and just grew and grew. Forest School was born in that moment at Alver Valley Schools.

In this article, I want to share our vision for Forest Schools at Alver Valley. In the next post, I will share how this vision was realised. Here is part one of our journey.

Alver Valley Forest School is a symbol of what we are about. It is more than just an activity or a fad. From the beginning, it was never meant to be a bolt on or a band wagon to be jumped on. It was to become an entitlement, a connection to be made, a right (of passage) for each and every child who would, does and will pass through our gates.

Now more than ever, when we have been forced to spend more time inside, do we reflect on the simple things. We crave the outdoors, the time to connect with nature, to just sit under a tree and be at peace, to spot the blossom on our cherry trees in our wood, to squeal when we find minibeasts and pick up berries which unfurl and scuttle off to the undergrowth.

In the early days it was about convincing all- staff, parents and Governors. Although to be honest, once people saw what it was and what it wasn’t they were hooked. We even did a practical workshop, where Governors got the “full experience” and conducted the remainder of the meeting in our base area in the woodland.

Developing a forest school at Alver Valley was a “no brainer.” We have the grounds (a good enough sized wood) with a country park on our doorstep, and pupils who would benefit from skills and experiences which could be carefully developed and fulfilled at Forest School.

We had 2 willing staff members (Mr Cook, one of our EYFS teachers, and myself – “what, a Headteacher doing Forest School training – haven’t you got a school to run?” (Thank you to all who held the fort for me!)) to lead and be substantively trained as Level 3 practitioners, we had children who were enthralled by the opportunity to grab their wellies and plastic trousers and jackets (thank you, PTA) and go and immerse themselves in their wood and have fun, and parents willing to let their children have fun in ways that they remember having fun with as a child, or would like their children to experience.

Whilst looking into Forest School, there became an immediate and blindingly obvious connection to me between Forest School and the emotional and social aspect of our curriculum. Whilst researching Forest School I came across the Thrive programme, which seeks to address and fill gaps or interruptions in children’s social and emotional development. With Thrive, the activities that are promoted to fill these gaps are those activities which are at the root of Forest School: to create a sense of belonging, to work with rather than against others, to develop confidence and resilience, to have the calm to focus and be able to self-regulate our own emotions.

So, I insisted in my wider school vision that the Thrive programme would go hand in hand with Forest School. Ali Lockwood (my Head of Schools) and I had an arm wrestle about which training we would do: I let her choose and I got the Forest training. The more I considered the practical aspects of Forest School, the more other aspects of our school dovetailed into this vision. Our 6 Strands Learning Behaviours curriculum, which had been introduced 18 months previously, supported the ethos of Forest Schools seamlessly – to develop focus, to risk take and be resilient, to set our own boundaries, to work independently and together, to self-regulate when things do not go as planned, and respect our woodland and what we have ultimately created here at Alver Valley.

It was all planned out – it has never been an accident that all these elements work together. It has been the realisation of strands that have been woven together. Even our Philosophy for Children curriculum (P4C) gives children the language and voice to express their own opinions and respond to others.

So we knew we wanted to get started on Forest Schools at Alver Valley – we understood the benefits for our children. We needed to think about what it would look like and how we would be able to dedicate the time to have meaningful impact for our children.

To date, we have established Forest Schools in our Reception Classes – now named Forest Fridays – and have led Forest School sessions in both Year 2 and Year 3 in response to the needs of particular cohorts and combining the approach with Thrive. Along with formal Forest Sessions many children from across our schools have got involved with a variety of Forest Activities that keep them in touch with the environment, including planting trees and hedges, planting seed bombs and creating bird feeders. We have also successfully led an after-school Forest School club. The use of the wider school grounds and woodland area is also woven into our science and geography curriculum. From September our Nursery Class will also have Forest School taster sessions as part of the weekly curriculum entitlement along with a provision in KS2.

In Part 2 we will look at how we realised the dream of Forest Schools in action. I can’t wait to share this with you…

Jill Roseblade

Executive Headteacher Alver Valley Schools

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If you are interested in finding out more about Alver Valley Schools go to www.alvervalleyschools.co.uk

Click here to read more about the Forest School approach at Alver Valley Schools.