Why learn in local greenspace?
Beckford Primary and the Rowan Cottage Nurture Group are situated in Whitehill, an urban area of Hamilton in South Lanarkshire. Initial discussions with the Head teacher, Lynsey Hogg, reflected that school staff didn’t use the school grounds or any local greenspaces for outdoor learning and felt they needed support to know where to go and what to do. This made them the perfect school for the Growing up Wild programme!
Finding your local greenspace
Karen Dobbins, South Lanarkshire Council Countryside and Greenspace Service, supported school staff, Rebecca Blair (Support) and Lauren Blair (Nurture Teacher), to find an area they could use. Backmuir Woods, a proposed Local Nature Reserve, was only a short, 10 minute walk away. This area, owned by South Lanarkshire Council, is ancient woodland which follows the banks of Park Burn and Wellshaw Burn. It’s a green oasis, surrounded by dense housing, an industrial estate and the East Kilbride expressway.
Accessing your local greenspace
At the start of the programme, the staff and pupils were not familiar with the woodland. It is a beautiful oak and bluebell wood but, like many urban woodlands, it suffers from vandalism, fires, litter and fly tipping. This made the entrances look uninviting and led to negative views of the area. South Lanarkshire Council Countryside and Greenspace Service and charity OutLET: Play Resource supported staff and pupils to carry out risk assessments and find safe areas to use.
Using your local greenspace
Nine pupils from Beckford Primary and the Rowan Cottage Nurture Group took part in a 12 week Forest School programme called Growing up Wild in Backmuir Woods. A Forest School approach was chosen because its process of repeated visits by the same pupils allows for the building of confidence and skills, as well as really connecting people with place. Participants really get to know the woodland, so they value it because of their own positive experiences. The person-centred approach of Forest School allows flexibility in learning and an opportunity for participants to follow their own interests, which is motivational and confidence building. This approach is beneficial for children and young people who find traditional classroom settings challenging. Group numbers were intentionally kept low to give the pupils the best opportunities to learn and develop. The benefits of the higher adult to pupil ratio allows for more child-led learning and tailored support.
Each week the group came together and learned about the woodland, how to use the area sustainably and leave no trace. They also tried out crafts and forest skills such as outdoor cooking, den-building and woodland art where they created anything their imaginations could dream up.
“I have never learned with anyone in a woodland before”
“At the start I totally hated worms and bugs but now if an insect comes and lands on my head or something I just take it and put it down. I’m more comfortable with other animals now”.
At the end of the programme, staff reported that pupils had become more resilient, confident and creative and their social skills had improved. They also saw benefits back in the classroom.
“For one child, her concentration levels were better in class immediately following the woods, as if she was able to use all her energy at Forest School and then return to class and concentrate on her lessons”.
“We felt that the children developed a lovely bond together – although most of the children had not previously socialised together, by the end they were all playing together, chatting together, working together and even all snuggling in at the campfire together! It felt like ‘a wee family’”
Spreading and embedding learning in local greenspace
The school is keen to continue regular visits to Backmuir Woods. As part of the Growing up Wild programme, Lauren and Rebecca were trained as Forest School Leaders and now feel comfortable and confident running activities in the woods. They believe the area should be used more by colleagues, as it is so local to the school, and have created a Forest School Handbook to support others.
Rebecca also volunteered with a local community group, Bothwell Road Action Group (BRAG), to help run family nature play sessions in Backmuir Woods during the summer holidays. These sessions were led by OutLET: Play Resource and were attended mostly by families with young children, with 120 people involved.
Lauren and Rebecca have been inspired by their experience to develop a small wooded area in the school playground for mini forest school sessions, for times when going to the woods is not feasible, and accessed the Learning in Local Greenspace seed fund to buy outdoor learning equipment for future sessions.
The pupils held a ‘Sharing Day’ when parents and carers joined them in the woods and they too noticed the benefits of spending time outdoors. It was lovely for the parents to see, first hand, how their children played and learned in the woods. All parents surveyed felt that spending time in nature was beneficial for their children.
“They have loved the experience, learning new skills and having some independence while exploring the woods and spending more time outdoors”.
“[My daughter] was more aware about litter because of Forest School. She got annoyed that people were dropping it and wanted to clear it up”.
The woods have been used more by families and other locals recently, though that could be due to the COVID lockdowns. Locals have created a fairy trail and the woods are busier with walkers. A couple of nurseries now also use the site. There are still issues with fires and littering but local people and schools have volunteered to help with litter picks.
“My tip for getting children outdoors is don't over- think it. We get so obsessed with planning learning outcomes but just take the children out, let them explore, observe them and then you'll see the learning whether it's in a formal education or play setting. The main thing is to make sure the area is safe, and you have enough people supervising to allow the children to follow their own interests.”