27 Nov, 2017

Reflective diary entry – Autumn 2017

This is a wonderful example of sensitive observations matched perfectly to provision and practice. This teacher is working under challenging conditions – and finds interesting and illuminating opportunities to extend the children’s knowledge and language – always being mindful of the positive behaviours that are being practised as the children work and play together.

Term two reflections from a Pre-school Forest School Leader

It is a bright autumnal morning, just before lunch and 16 children aged between 2 and 4 years old gradually choose to stop holding hands and begin to run off ahead as we enter the familiarity of our favourite woods. We’ve been bringing children down here to our local urban woodland for around four years now. I can remember how we used to hold their hands as much as possible to start with but the confidence that grows among our children as we use the woods over time means that we would be holding them back if we kept holding their hands at this point of the year. I feel that we are all on a journey to independence. You just have to trust children and let them off the ‘leash’ sometimes. There is great learning and a potential development of resilience to be had by being allowed to trip up and brush yourself off sometimes. It has been photo morning and we have not managed to spend all morning down the woods like we normally do on a Wednesday. The children seem to have missed their time in the woods today and I have to say that I have too. The sense of freedom and release is noticeable as they happily charge off to explore the now familiar landmarks.

Two three year old boys confidently straddle and begin to naturally work together to bounce up and down on a large fallen branch from a tree. Two other boys (almost 4 years old) chase each other at speed trying to play tag. They skilfully change direction as they weave in and out of their friends, the adults, trees, and stumps, and negotiating the uneven ground they encounter with dexterity. One of the boys laughs as he throws himself onto the floor in a dramatic superhero style. “Look at this!” he shouts as he does a dramatic skid. He rolls in the leaves and I cannot help but smile as I remember back to the beginning of term one, when he used to become overwhelmed from getting mud on his hands or his trousers. Here is the boy who seemed to hate getting dirty or the feel of grime and wet mud on his hands rolling in the mud and enjoying himself. Not only that but, last week, he chose to join his friends walking up the stream, squelching in the mud in his welly boots and pretending the opposite bank was an ‘island.’ This was all after he explored among the Japanese knot weed using language to pretend that he was travelling up an ‘escalator in the local bookshop to go to the café with his mum.’ Later on in last week’s exploration, this boy chose to be a ‘mountaineer’ as he clung onto the para-chord (the same para-chord that some of the boys tried to tie around tree stumps), and hauled himself up a wet muddy bank. He giggled as he used his hands to control his sliding descent down the steep muddy slope on his bottom, of course this inspired him to climb up and slide down the bank several times that morning. He rolled in the leaves in sheer joy over and over again. He was joined, on this occasion, by another boy who has just turned three years old. He suffers with epilepsy, apnoea and hypermobility. This little boy has never faced the bank before but he’s pretty determined that he is going to haul himself up by the para-chord too. I walk up closely behind him, keeping the line taught and steady. He is so proud as he conquers the bank and enjoys sliding back down on his bottom. His mum says how much of an achievement this was for him as she looks at the photo of him in action. This is vigorous activity for this little boy and he chooses to spend his afternoon in some restful block and train play.

Back to today, and I notice three of the two year old girls confidently having a go at climbing up our favourite climbing tree. All three can now climb up the tree to just above their head height with very little help. So many of our little ones seemed to trip over thin air when they first joined us in term one. This cohort of children mainly live in flats that have no gardens and they spend quite a lot of time in a pushchair but here these three girls are now showing a real determination and drive to take a risk to conquer the tree. The girls hold out one hand and I hold it to steady them as they adjust their footing on the v-section between two branches. They keep holding my hand as they jump from the ledge of the tree and I help them to land safely. I can remember some of our four year olds being two. They started off in much the same way and here they are now confidently climbing up and jumping out the tree (and landing safely) independently.

We move on together deeper into the woods. “I going in the Gruffalo house!” exclaims one of our three year old boys. Thirteen children choose to filter into the hollow den formed by the sprawling Rhododendron bush. “Where the Gruffalo gone?” I’m asked. I wonder where the children think he has gone, “maybe he’s gone to see the big bad wolf!” they decide. “Where does the big bad wolf live?” I’m asked. “Down in a hole in the bottom woods,” I reply. “What about the troll?” “Oh he lives under the bridge over the stream.” What strikes me today is that this might be quite a large bush that most of us are in but none of the children are arguing. They navigate the enclosure without losing their tempers with each other, there is a lack of the pushing and shoving that was so prevalent at the beginning of term one. Negotiating space and controlling movements and actions formed an important next step for many of these children, and it still does, but I can sense that we have been on a bit of a journey in this respect. I can sense that progress is being made. The dens that many of the children chose to build in the lower woods over the past three weeks are still standing, they have not been destroyed by others who use the woods! It all started through one of our boy’s love of ‘The three little pigs’ story. He had found a pile of straw as we walked to the woods, ‘the little pig’s house of straw.’ Once in the woods, his attention turned to building a ‘house of sticks.’ One of the adults helped this boy to begin his stick house building project. As the weeks have progressed, many of our three and four year olds have chosen to get involved they have added to the house of sticks and taken it on as their own project. Some of the older two year olds have followed the lead of the older children by coming over to help out by arranging a stick path that leads up to the stick house. Co-operation and negotiation is growing among this group of children, as are their communication and language skills. Children have been negotiating the space that the little house affords and some of them have realized that they can fit in (scrunched up in a ball individually) much to their amusement. We suggested that we could make a big den. Successive groups of children have added to the adult-led idea of the big den by working together to drag large fallen branches to stand up against the tree tepee style. I notice that three of the three year old boys have been playing with maths by naturally taking time in their exploration to stand sticks up on their ends next to themselves to measure how tall they are in comparison. Two of the boys were comparing the thickness and weight of their branches too. Yes, this group of children are on course to become more tolerant of each other and confined spaces through working co-operatively to build their dens. Sure, our woodland blanket parachute games have helped these children to manoeuvre with more control too, in addition to noticing characteristics that they possess in comparison to the characteristics of their friends but it is through the natural free play and exploration that I can now assess how much real progress is being made.  

The amount of times I now see children helping each other in the woods is quite humbling really and I am seeing it more now back in preschool too. I now see three year olds helping younger children by offering them their hand and talking them through as they negotiate areas of the woods. Children are concerned when others slip, are upset or overwhelmed. They cheer each other on as they hang from the ‘monkey branch’ and we count how long they can hang on for. They help each other out as we think of whose name sounds like the word I am calling out before the children can cross the troll bridge that straddles the stream into the bottom woods. As they cross the bridge, I can see our younger children reaching out their balancing arms, aeroplane style, to keep balance over the bridge but I can also see the confidence and improved balance of our three and four year olds as they become less reliant (or even totally independent) on balancing arms. I see children helping each other by pulling each other out, giggling, from the deep sticky mud that their wellies have got stuck in because they stopped moving. I also see the natural deep level of joy that these children seem to share as they try to overcome the problem of being stuck in the mud. They notice each other as they find ‘gigantic’ leaves that can cover their faces or ‘teeny tiny’ leaves that are smaller than any of the others. They notice the pictures that they drew on the trees using some charcoal that they found and they add to the clay ‘faces’ that we created a couple of weeks back. I know that well-being levels are high and our literacy learning is filtering down deep when I hear children naturally sharing and narrating our favourite tales together as they walk in the woods and negotiate obstacles such as the long grass, sticky mud and stream. They start singing ‘5 little monkeys swinging in the trees’ as they ‘swing’ on the overhanging ivy. I can hear genuine excitement in their voices as one of their friends finds the sheep skulls and bones that we have planted in the lower clearing, “dinosaurs!” “Maybe it’s a Tera dactyl!” We make our own theories and notice the features and shapes in the bones and skulls while measuring and comparing the features of what we are handling to our own bodies. Exciting new links are made and new words are learnt as we notice that the bones are ‘hollow’ and some of the sticks we find are ‘hollow’ too.

As we stroll through the woods today, the chants of ‘what’s the time Mr Wolf’ seem distant as a more reflective mood descends. Dappled sunlight shines through the autumn canopy and we listen out for sounds and watch squirrels climbing through the trees. I’m asked “you got any food?” I haven’t today because we are heading back for lunch but this request is made every time we come to the woods by this little boy. He knows that when we make a cake back at preschool, it is someone’s birthday, “anyone’s birthday today?” He also knows that when we come to the woods there are normally always bananas, crackers and milk on offer. I remember some of our two year olds sitting on the tarpaulin munching their bananas while looking at some story books on one of our recent visits. We form a circle and sing some songs. We notice how many adults and children there are together before we head back to preschool to satisfy the healthy appetites we have developed during our adventure in the woods.

Our children really do miss the woods when we don’t manage to get down there. It’s really important that we continue to go. Our children seem to be making so much progress in all areas of learning and development through the active ‘curriculum’ that the woods naturally provide and I am beginning to see real progress being made back at preschool. Mark-making is becoming more controlled (less abstract) among some of our older children. Emotions are becoming less overwhelming. There are less children tripping. Vocabulary is broadening. These children ask everyday…. “Are we going to the woods today?”