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Mud and guts! 5 reasons to go wild for Forest School

Have the Persil on standby because bugs, climbing trees, den building and dirt can help your kids flourish. St Andrew's has embraced Woodland Learning and is seeing incredible results… Time to get your stilettos muddy and see what’s it’s all about.


As the great countryside escape of 2020 continues, the demand for outdoor learning has shot up. Why? Where do we begin? The digital nanny has had a breakdown, dissatisfaction with the school syllabus, homeschooling PTSD, lack of outdoor space at home, plus the positive effects nature has on health and wellbeing.

st Andrews Pre-Prep Forest School toasting marshmallows

Dig a bit deeper, and we discover Forest School has some pretty impressive credentials – and St Andrew’s has jumped in with both wellies. Head of Pre-Prep Fiona Armstrong is a passionate advocate for outdoor learning and has seen the positive results it has had on St Andrews’ pupils – from nursery up to Y4. Every morning the littlies suit up, head out and the magic of the woods fires up their imagination. It allows them to take controlled risks, develop physical stamina and resilience through unstructured play and exploration.

Inspired by the outdoors culture – or friluftsliv – of Scandinavia, sessions are usually held either entirely or mostly outdoors and are intended to supplement, rather than replace, traditional education. Yet to be convinced? Fiona explains why kids thrive in the great outdoors…

st Andrews Pangbourne Nursery and Pre Prep Forest School walking to the woods with the teacher


When children come to us from the age of three, some lack physical strength and stamina. You’ll have children asking permission to go outside, but being in the woods, surrounded by nature, is very much a part of school life at St Andrew’s. We go to the woods every day and in all weathers. It can take a little bit of encouragement to get the youngest ones out but, once they do, they cover about 2km during our sessions. They observe wind, frost, spring, sunshine and grow in confidence day by day.

Walking, collecting sticks, clambering over logs, hanging off branches also help to build physical strength and confidence – each child goes at their own pace. Balancing skills are used to develop their gross motor skills and threading with leaves and squeezing clay, fires up those fine motor movements.

Once they have mastered those controlled movements and bilateral coordination, the older pupils can use whittling knives and hammers, build fires and climb safely.

ST ANDREWS PANGBOURNE FOREST SCHOOL nursery and Prep prep CHILDREN collecting leaves with the teacher


Engagement outside the classroom is always high, so language, phonics and maths are all done in the woods. We’ve put numbers on the trees for the kids to squirt with water pistols and they become totally absorbed in all the activities – looking, touching, feeling. They also use the time to talk openly about things. The walk to our outdoor classroom is really useful for children who are processing bereavement, mental health issues, missing siblings or friendship disputes. It’s a calm, safe time to engage informally with the teaching staff and helps them work on emotional language..

St Andrews Pangbourne Forest School children out in the woods


During lockdown, despite being online together, the children really missed their peers. Forest School develops problem solving skills, collaboration and the ability to express themselves. This leads to an exuberance and confidence when speaking to adults as they move through the school.

Children are naturally curious and it is essential they understand the world around them. We have painted with natural yoghurt, threaded leaves, watched the daffodils come up, painted with berries and flowers, and detected the protected species in the grounds around us. Then afternoon lessons circle back to our woodland adventures, applying our discoveries across the curriculum in art, science, english, maths etc.


st Andrews Pangbourne Forest School Mud kitchen and potion making station

While parents hover over their kids, heart in mouth, we like to develop confidence and bravery so that the children ‘have a go’. Problem solving and the development of their creative brains is key, and each progressive step is celebrated. Tree climbing is allowed and we have two rules. 1/ Only climb in threes: one climber, one to be with them and one to run for help. 2/ Only climb as high as you can get down. The adults won’t carry them out of the tree, so they must learn personal responsibility.

The teachers set up the activities and are on hand to support and observe, but we want the children to become more independent. What starts as collecting sticks and toasting marshmallows leads to using whittling knives and lighting fires. Our Woodland Learning ‘have a go’ ethos can cause mixed messages between home and school. But we believe in the six Cs: compassion, curiosity, commitment, collaboration, commitment and creativity. By taking calculated risks, the payback is that language blossoms and personalities evolve.


St Andrews Pangbourne child whittling a stick

Not all children thrive in a traditional classroom setting, but send them out into the woods and these children flourish. The freedom, the emphasis on practical skills, the opportunity to do the activities and use video or photography to record it is a huge advantage. They’re often the ones getting stuck in at the mud kitchen, getting creative at the potion making station, climbing trees or building dens and growing that independence that is fundamental to their development. If they get frustrated, adults intervene but we try to let them work it out for themselves.

When you go into the woods the magic is there, and we want our parents to experience that. Seeing is believing.

  • Woodland Learning is integral to the education that St Andrew’s Nursery and Pre-Prep children experience. The provision has now been extended to Y3 and Y4 as a co-curricular activity.
  • The summer term will see the launch of St Andrew’s HQ in the woods, so the children can store all the materials they need for and take off their wellies.
  • Toddler Tree Tots is a half-termly toddler group for local parents to get the little ones involved early. Parents and their little ones can enjoy the outdoors and let the children play safely.

If you fancy having a nose around St Andrew’s Pre-Prep, pop along to the Open Day on 6 May.

Find more ideas here


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