Why learn in local greenspace?
St Paul’s Primary serves Whitehill, an urban area of Hamilton in South Lanarkshire. At the start of the project, Head teacher, Carol McAuley, reflected that only two members of staff used the school grounds for learning and none used local greenspaces. Staff were keen but feedback suggested they needed guidance on where they could safely go and ideas for what to do when they got there. Carol was keen that both nursery and school staff were involved, as she was aiming to embed outdoor learning across the entire establishment.
Finding your local greenspace
Two staff, Laurie MacGregor (Nursery) and Stephen Clark (P2/3 Teacher), were supported by Karen Dobbins of South Lanarkshire Council Countryside and Greenspace Service to find an area they could use just a 10 minute walk away. Backmuir Woods, a proposed Local Nature Reserve owned by South Lanarkshire Council, is a small ancient woodland on the banks of the Park Burn and Wellshaw burn, bounded by dense housing, an industrial estate and the East Kilbride expressway.
Accessing your local greenspace
Funding through the NatureScot Outdoor Learning in Nature Fund (OLiN) enabled support for the teachers from Karen and local charity OutLET: Play Resource to access and use the site. Although Backmuir is a beautiful oak and bluebell wood, like many urban woodlands, it suffers from antisocial behaviour, vandalism, fires, litter and fly tipping, particularly near the entrances. This made the site seem unappealing to Laurie and Stephen and they had concerns around the pupils’ safety and the quality of the learning experiences that might be on offer. An early focus for Karen, OutLET: Play Resource and the teachers, therefore, was to find and risk assess safe areas within the wood, and visits with the pupils always included activities around risk assessment and treating the woods with respect.
Using your local greenspace
For 12 weeks, Laurie, Stephen and 12 pupils took part in Forest School sessions as part of the Growing up Wild in Backmuir Woods programme. They investigated the woodland; created natural art and craft; learned skills such as how to safely use tools, den building and outdoor cooking; and took part in lots of child-led play.
Pupils were selected to take part with the aim of building their confidence and social skills, and group numbers were intentionally kept low to give them the best opportunities to learn and develop. The Forest School approach can be beneficial for children and young people who find traditional classroom settings challenging and the process of repeated visits to the same place builds confidence and skills as well as really connecting people with the place. They really get to know the woodland, so they value it because of their own positive experiences there. The person centred approach also allows flexibility in learning and an opportunity for participants to follow their own interests.
“All 12 children benefited from the programme by either having stronger relationships with their peers, a little more self-confidence or a general improvement in their demeanour and attitude towards school”
“My Forest School experience has had a huge impact on my confidence to take our children for ‘adventures’ in the local woods.”
The children enjoyed the sessions and some have shared them with their families
“I never used to want to go to the woods but now I can see that they are fun”
“I used to think that they were scary but now I enjoy them”
“My family likes the adventure [in the woods]”
“I can now show my family stuff”.
Backmuir Wood is an aspiring Local Nature Reserve so is already well managed by South Lanarkshire Council. Perhaps due to seeing schools enjoying the woods, local people are now more interested too. A benefit of the COVID lockdowns has been that people have had more time to discover the greenspaces on their doorstep. Backmuir is busier with walkers, and locals have created a fairy trail that delights visiting children. Another nursey now also uses the site. There are still a lot of issues with fires and littering but SLC Countryside and Greenspace Service have been approached by locals volunteering to help and, COVID allowing, schools and nurseries will get involved too.
“I want the children and families to fight to take back Backmuir Woods; the more children visit, the more litter we pick up and the more we take care of it will help to get the community behind it and push out the anti-social behaviour.”
Spreading and embedding learning in local greenspace
St Paul’s Primary have embedded outdoor learning into their daily practice. As part of the Growing up Wild programme, Stephen and Laurie were trained as Forest School Leaders, and they now feel confident leading their own sessions and sharing their skills with other staff. The school has seen the benefits and a further member of staff is now undertaking the training, with another on the waiting list.
“Before the programme we would take the children for walks to the local shops or to visit the neighbourhood centre and we probably would not have considered the woods to be a safe option. But now in the nursery, most of the staff have been out for walks in the woods with the nursery children and even some of our youngest children (2-3 years old) have visited the woods. I think that for most of the nursery staff the idea of going to the woods has changed. It is accessible, only 10 to 15 minutes’ walk away. The greenspace provides incredibly exciting learning opportunities for our children to become explorers, naturalists and survivors”
During lockdown, many, many families told the school about visits to the woods and sent photographs and videos of their experiences. There was a sense that Backmuir Woods really helped them through the challenges.
Back in school after lockdown, visits have continued several times a week with both nursery and school pupils, supporting over 100 children to experience the wonder and awe of Backmuir Woods. The whole school also had a Forest Adventure Day. Some of the Forest School pupils have volunteered to help with an outdoor learning project in the nursery.
"This programme has really helped sustain outdoor learning within St Paul's Primary and Nursery. The staff that were trained have continued to lead the development and train other members of staff to help their confidence when learning outdoors… This has really helped change the ethos of the school and nursery and helps us fulfil our vision 'We make things happen at St Paul's!"
Watch this wonderful child’s-eye view of their Forest School experience; The Pleasure of a Puddle - YouTube