Developing a Forest School at Waikino

Over the past few years Waikino School has become well known for doing things a bit differently. This year they have started a ‘Forest Schools’ programme with teacher Lauren Bartram leading the way.  Forest Schools is described as empowering children through experiential learning in nature.

Waikino staff were looking for alternative ways of raising achievement for students.  “The normal classroom situation wasn’t meeting some children’s needs as well as it could” said Lauren.  She found that areas identified for raising achievement for Maori/Pacifica students such as hands on learning, being student driven, having self worth and developing tenacity, were all the things that a ‘forest schools’ programme seemed to offer.  Lauren explains that these qualities, when developed in students out in the environment, can be transferred to their classroom learning – “when a child is doing Maths or Literacy and it becomes hard then these qualities can keep them going.”

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The support of the Board of Trustees has been essential to the inclusion of the ‘Forest Schools’ programme into the school curriculum.  It fitted in with their strategic goals of ‘Sustainability of the Environment’ among others.  A UK based ‘Forest Schools’ training came up and the Board funded Lauren to do it.  Lauren highly recommends the year long training.

The school was involved with the Ministry’s accelerated literacy programme and has recently been featured in the NZ Education Gazette here. The intention of this programme is to raise literacy achievement by doing something different so ‘forest school’ fitted in perfectly.  It’s a long term project, the intention is to take data and observation around motivation, engagement, risk taking, and resilience and then compare this to classroom data. It can be used as a model that other schools can use and see value in.

Lauren says the programme has also had support from the school community.  She brought parents on board with the idea last year, talking to them about the need to develop resilience in children and to nurture the whole child.

But you can’t have a ‘Forest School’ without a forest!  Waikino has about 6 acres of wilderness at the back of the school and one of the goals of the school Vision Map was to develop this.  It was used by the school and the community in the past and had a lot of history buried there.  In 2017, new Principal Joanna Wheway organised to have pest plants removed and re-establish old pathways so the students could get in there and explore the area. “Joanna saw the benefits for kids – if there’s benefits for kids she is willing to deal with the hard stuff”, said Lauren.  There have been other benefits too: through gaining access to the area, students found a good clay deposit which led to the decision to incorporate adobe into plans for an outdoor classroom.

Once students started to explore the area they became fascinated with the history of the place.  They inquired through their local newspaper and Facebook page for anyone who had stories to tell and this led to lots of community input. A path that had once led to the local tavern was revealed, as well as uncovering the old school swimming pool, that had been re-claimed by nature.  Enviroschools Facilitator Beccy Dove recalls a visit where two children came running up filled with excitement at finding a rusty aged frying pan and an old brown bottle with ‘lung preserver’ on it.  The wilderness area has been a real place of discovery and wonder for the students.

The ‘forest school’ ethos and the importance of place ties in perfectly with the Enviroschools Guiding Princple of ‘Maaori Perspectives’.  It also encompasses many curriculum aims including connection to place, and citizenship.

Throughout the inquiry leading to the development of the area Lauren said she went back to the Enviroschools resources and adapted them to suit.  She has used the ‘If the earth is an apple’ activity a few times and changed it to suit the situation.  The ‘word hunt’ activity helped the children identify the best site for their home-base and safe sites for their huts.  They have mapped the area and identified where the water comes from and where the atua are present.  The students had wondered if it was safe to drink but through their inquiry found that it ran through a goat farm and learnt all about the effects of stock on waterways.  She has found the ‘What if?’ questions really valuable.

Lauren runs the ‘Forest School’ with her Year 2 and 3 class, one day a week.  The first 6 weeks are about establishing boundaries and getting to know the group.  They don’t use tools or make fire during this period but the children can use ropes and tarps to build shelters. In the Forest Schools programme the learning of skills always has a purpose, such as, learning appropriate knots when they needed to use them in the building of their huts and later learning how to make fire in winter when it was really needed for warmth.

Jo takes principal release the day of ‘forest school’ and is on call via her cellphone so Lauren can manage the child to adult ratio.  Lauren is also released once a week to lead a ‘forest playgroup’.  She explains “all the kids want to be involved now so the question is how do we sustain it into the future?”

Lauren has also been building a relationship with Aongatete Lodge an outdoor education centre based in the Kaimai Forest. They are really passionate about regeneration, sustainability and bush survival skills.  As the native bush at Waikino is not well established, this allows the students occasional access to a really mature forest. Their long term goal is to regenerate their own bush area with students eradicating weeds, planting natives and managing pest control.  The students have put together a forest management plan and are able to use tools such as loppers in order to progress this. Lauren says it has made her re-evaluate her whole teaching practice, “questioning what development milestones make you teach the way you teach”.

If the programme continues to prove successful then future options could be to offer the opportunity to other schools in town, for their at-risk kids.  For this she hopes a few more people in the community might do the training so there are others to facilitate the programme.

For now, the students are having a blast, rain, hail or shine every Monday and Lauren is enjoying it as much as them and also seeing the direct impact of engagement in their in class learning whether it is related to their experiences on the Monday or not.

Find out more about Forest Schools and their training programme: http://forestschools.com

Student discoveries from the Waikino Forest School:

http://www.waikino.school.nz/junior-school—waitawheta-team/waitawheta-olden-day-bottles

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