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Beyond Sustainability at Forest School : Part 1

The importance of sustainability is often discussed in the Forest School community and we spend a huge amount of time on our courses teaching new Forest School Leaders and Outdoor Learning Practitioners to use their sites in a sustainable way, protecting the wildlife that we share our spaces with and constantly considering the impact we have on our sites. Over the past 10 years that I have been leading Forest School our natural world has changed dramatically and it has been increasingly obvious to me how urgently we need to think 'beyond sustainability' and, rather than mitigate our use of the site, proactively choose spaces where we can have a positive impact on the outdoor space and biodiversity.

It is widely accepted and research has proven that good quality Forest School programmes create long term relationships for children with nature which, in turn, helps them to develop emotional connections with the outside world. Ultimately, they become guardians of the future at a time when we are so desperately in need of hope. Over the past 10 years I have seen countless children gaze in awe and wonder at the way that nature can surprise and amaze us every day, indeed I still constantly learn more about nature every time I am in the woods. However, more interesting to me is the impact that long term programmes can have on our life long relationship with nature. At Muddy Puddle Club we have always striven to be as true to the Forest School ethos as we can and are proud to be one of the only independent providers in the country that holds the status of FSA recognised Forest School provider. One of the reasons we hold this is due to our commitment to long term programmes which have children visit the same woods, every week, every season of the year and on an ongoing basis. With this the children nurture and protect their wild spaces, learn how to manage woodland to encourage biodiversity and this knowledge goes with them into the wider world and their futures.

So, how can we develop and manage our Forest School sites to go beyond sustainability and start improving areas and supporting wildlife around us? In this first blog post on the topic we will look at sites in schools and other educational settings where you may be starting with open spaces, just a few trees and small copses on the edges of fields and in part 2 we will look at different types of woodland that are most common in this area (Ancient Woodlands, semi ancient woodlands and plantations). There will also be a third post on managing outdoor spaces like vegetable gardens, meadows and ponds to encourage wildlife and biodiversity.

In educational settings we usually choose a space for our Forest School site within the school grounds. We encourage leaders to choose a space which will only be used for Forest School rather than wider outdoor learning curriculum's. There's a number of reasons for this, but from a sustainability point of view it's important that the site is used responsibly and with a careful management plan in place. Our ultimate aim is to leave a space more rich and supporting more wildlife than when we started, we can only do this by carefully managing the space we use and limiting the footfall.

Common starting points;

Copse of Hazel on the edge of the field which hasn't been managed for a long time.

A group of more mature trees with mostly grass ground cover.

Old woodland which was left in place that surrounds a school field.

Empty school field.

The first step for each Forest School leader when faced with a new space to develop is to choose the area they would like to use. I have been to a few schools where there has been well established hedging to the edge of the field that is rich with nesting birds, woodland flowers and small animals. If we are considering sustainability first (which we should be) then I suggest leaving this space alone and leaving the wildlife to it. We can't teach children about birds and other wildlife if there is no wildlife to see, it would be counter productive. Instead consider what you could do to the edge of this space to protect it? Could we plant more trees to make this space bigger? Could you build dead hedging on the edge of it to stop children running through and provide a home for small animals and invertebrate?

The example below shows a Forest School site in a nursery, the space was once an unused corner of a large backgarden. By letting spaces go wild and planting trees around the edges the site is increasing in biodiversity year on year.

Once you have a selected a space which would benefit from more management and use then the next step is to complete a species survey of the site. This is something that we cover during all of our accredited Forest School training. This then helps us to develop a management plan for the next 3 years - what do I already have growing? How can I encourage this to grow better? Can I plant more trees to enrich the space and create more homes for wildlife? What trees will grow well here? How much space do I have permission to develop? Can I persuade them to let me have more? What fauna is already visiting the site? How can I encourage them to visit more? Do I have any invasive species growing? If so, what do I need to do to remove it and how do I protect the new flora and fauna that will grow back in its place?

So with all this in mind - what can we add to the site to enhance biodiversity and leave the site with more than we started with?

On our Level 3 Forest School course our trainees learn simple woodland management techniques which help them to develop rich and sustainable sites which support learning as well as wildlife. We develop a management plan consisting of a species survey, plans and maps and a 3 year woodland management plan. This is site specific survey and plan which is developed in discussion with the land owner. You will need to seek help from experts on what types of trees are suitable for planting and so on.

Where to look next?

Our aim as Forest School Leaders is to create rich outdoor environments for our learners to develop not only self esteem and confidence, but also a strong emotional connection with nature. We cannot do that if by being in the woods causes harm to the very environment that we are seeking to teaching them about. We must go beyond sustainability, choose locations which will benefit from better management, more planting and more care.

In part 2 of this series we will look at larger woodland environments, looking at some woodlands we have worked in that have benefited from our work within them. Also, thinking about how long term programmes can give us time to teach children about woodland management and how they can take an active part in looking after and protecting these spaces. We will look at why woodlands need to be managed in this modern world, what happened to the animals that used to manage the woodlands without human interference and what we need to do going forward as climate change starts to change the way we need to manage woodlands.


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