It’s time to play out

Creating a movement for natural play and learning in urban Liverpool and beyond.

On two windy days in February something unusual happened at St Vincent De Paul Catholic Primary School in the centre of Liverpool. Almost overnight, 200 trees appeared in the school grounds. The inner city school had got its own piece of forest.

The school, tucked between the bars of the Ropewalks and the hipster creative businesses of the Baltic Triangle is about as urban as it gets. So it’s a pretty big deal when a crowd of parents, children and staff give up their time to plant a woodland, bringing nature into the school environment.

The marathon planting sessions were just one small part of a project by The Mersey Forest, funded by Smurfit Kappa Foundation and the Ernest Cook Trust which is aiming to embed a culture of natural play and learning in Merseyside schools. It’s in response to studies like that done by the National Trust in 2014 which found that most children play outside for less than an hour a day, and the public health implications of inactive children turning into obese sedentary adults. With experts now claiming ‘sitting is the new smoking’, restoring active play outdoors is becoming urgent. For The Mersey Forest, there are deeper reasons why children need contact with nature. Jo Sayers, Community Development Officer and the Forest School lead for the organisation comments:

“We think there’s something fundamental about humans needing contact with nature. That’s even more true of children — getting your hands dirty and making mud pies and dens is an important part of growing up. It’s good for us mentally, good for us physically, and the social experience of playing outside is important too.”

There’s a thing called the ‘natural play paradox’. It goes like this: parents enthuse wistfully about their unsupervised childhood romps in woodlands, building dens and playing out late in parks and scrubland — then remark of their own children: “I wouldn’t even dream of letting them out on their own now!”

In 2012 Natural England found that the likelihood of children visiting any green space at all had have halved within the space of a generation.

Is the paradox real? Some people think that adults tend to misremember their own childhoods. But others point to a range of studies that show that children’s contact with nature and levels of outdoor play have dropped dramatically. In 2012 Natural England found that the likelihood of children visiting any green space at all had have halved within the space of a generation. Blame is placed at car-filled streets, loss of green spaces, stranger danger, the lure of the games console and the mobile phone. Or at parents themselves, for failing to properly assess risk and fearing the worst at what might happen if children play out.

The reduction in time spent outdoors in natural environments has been labelled ‘nature deficit disorder’ and some have argued that it may be linked to a number of behavioural disorders. Other research has found that outdoor learning and play can improve children’s social skills, cognitive skill development, academic performance, mental wellbeing and physical health. So it’s in everyone’s interests, schools and parents, to find ways for children to play and learn in nature. And that’s where Forest School comes in.

Jo Sayers (bottom right) with staff parents and children from St Vincent De Paul Catholic Primary School

Forest School allows children to play, explore and learn about the natural environment and do activities like shelter-building, outdoor cooking, growing plants, using tools and bug-hunting. It’s a hands-on approach to promote play in natural environments and encourage children (and indirectly) parents to become more comfortable with natural play. Although inspired by Scandinavian practices it’s very much a UK invention, with a clear set of principles and certification route for practitioners. Forest School sessions are run as weekend and evening paid-for activities as well as being part of the school day, helping to teach the curriculum.

Jo acts as the co-ordinator for a whole network of Forest School enthusiasts across Merseyside and Cheshire, including schools, teachers, independent Forest School consultants and local authority staff. Together with Clare Austin, a Mersey Forest match-funded PhD student from Liverpool John Moores University she’s also immersed herself in the theory of Forest School. The pair have contributed to a chapter on play and learning outdoors to the Geographies of Children and Young People reference work. It points to the need for suitably prepared woodland venues and the need to empower teachers to become Forest School educators so it becomes integrated into school life rather than an added extra. They realised that just running Forest School sessions delivered by external practitioners wasn’t enough to embed real cultural change.

Jo comments: “We can deliver sessions for a school and benefit one group of kids for a term. But if we’ve done that by taking the kids out on a bus to a nature reserve, that contact with nature is fleeting at best. And when the funding runs out, the children in the year below get nothing. We wanted to change that and leave a real legacy where the school staff become the new leaders and where the next generation of urban Liverpool pupils don’t see anything unusual about a Forest School session.”

The Mersey Forest, working alongside the wider Merseyside and Cheshire Forest Schools network has developed a four pronged approach to changing the way children learn and play. Firstly, creating natural environments within schools where possible so there’s a venue on the doorstep for Forest School. Secondly running sessions with children and staff, mentoring teachers, helping to establish the benefits of the approach within the school. Thirdly, training up a range of teachers so they can deliver Forest School without ongoing external support. Finally, providing support from other trained leaders and creating a ‘peer support network’ of parents and carers who have been encouraged to buy into natural play and have the confidence to allow their children to play outdoors safely.

The model has been developed in Liverpool with the enthusiastic support of packaging company Smurfit Kappa and the Ernest Cook Trust. The focus of the Trust’s £10,000 funding is on enabling children who live in the most socially and environmentally deprived areas to access Forest School.

Left to right: Growing area at St Stephens Catholic Primary School, Warrington | Class group from Garston Primary | Children enjoying a lesson at Kingsley Primary School

Jenny Bethel, class teacher at St Vincent de Pauls, is now waiting to start seeing her class play in the new grounds. Nearby Kingsley Primary School have already started Forest School so she visited to see how it works. “It was really inspiring seeing how the children had benefited from learning outdoors, developing social skills, confidence and being active at the same time. We’re happy to have started adapting our grounds to run similar sessions.”

Hannah Kennedy, teacher from Liverpool’s Garston Primary, has found the sessions invaluable for her class: “I loved to see the children in a completely different environment, to see the way they solve problems and face challenges, to see their imaginations develop”

She’s found that some of the most difficult to engage children have benefited the most: “I was also really struck by the change in one little boy who has English as a second language. He would say more to me in the walk to the woods than he does in the rest of the week put together. In the classroom he is very difficult to engage. But out here he is engrossed and engaged!”

Jenny and Hannah are two of many teachers who are feeling enthused about natural play. 120 schools across Merseyside and Cheshire have taken part in Forest School sessions over the past 5 years, with 10 involved in the more intensive model pioneered by The Mersey Forest and partners.

Now teachers are being targeted right at the beginning of their careers, with local universities including Forest School as part of teacher training courses. “We’ve found that students get really inspired by Forest School”, says Jo, “and having the training actually makes them more employable, it’s seen as a really positive string to your bow by many schools in our area now.”

Planting trees at St Vincent de Paul Catholic Primary School

The rise in popularity of Forest School is particularly appreciated by Chartered Forester and independent consultant Ross Weddle. He may well be one of the first people from the UK to ever take part in a Forest School type programme, attending the sessions as a four year old in Denmark while his parents took part in a study tour. Ross describes his Danish experience as being a formative experience:

“I think early learning about the environment, and playing in trees, and being allowed to do things like sharpen sticks led to a desire for a non desk bound job, being hands-on outdoors. That early learning carried on through life.”

Ross later became a forester and arborist and made his own mark on environmental education as Scotland’s first school grounds officer, supporting schools to transform tarmac deserts into more natural places to play. Now, he sees Forest School as crucial to the childhoods of a future generation of urban children:

“The UK probably needs three million houses and that could be a huge urbanisation programme. Unless the role of nature is taken into account it won’t be sustainable. People need to connect to the natural environment and the urban forestry movement is vital to achieving that, especially through programmes like Forest School”

This article was written on behalf of The Mersey Forest