14 November 2019

Making the most of our woodland.

By Rachel Sloane

How many times have we heard that a walk in the woods is a beautiful experience that will lift our spirits and may help us to get a little fitter? In Norfolk and Suffolk, we are lucky enough to have many public footpaths that wind their way through beautiful woodland.

Whatever the season and whatever the weather, woods will provide something to look at, listen to, and smell, for all age groups. In Japan they call it
”forest-bathing” and it is recommended by the Government for their over- worked and stressed citizens. It has been suggested that family doctors here could “prescribe” a walk in the woods, to help improve their patients wellbeing.

The benefits for children of learning in a woodland environment are also well known. In 1993 a group of nursery nurses saw the open-air educational provision in Denmark and brought the idea to Britain. Since then there has been an increasing number of British “forest schools” and many more people have qualified as Forest School Practitioners and are working in Suffolk and Norfolk.

To get some idea of what happens at a Forest School, why woods are so inspiring, and how we could make the most of a day in the woods, Mell Harrison the Delivery Manager for Forest School and Education, at the Green Light Trust in Lawshall, Suffolk, and Holly James, the Director and Lead Outdoor Practitioner from GroWild, in Sprowston, Norfolk, are ideally placed to explain.

The Green Light Trust has just celebrated its thirtieth birthday and was begun when its two founders, after working in Papua New Guinea to save the rain-forests, were challenged by a tribe leader to go back and plant woods in their own county too.

“The Green Light Trust to begin with, was supporting community groups to grow and maintain their own woodland and there are over forty woods across Suffolk that have been supported by the Trust,” said Mell Harrison.

“People’s wellbeing is increased by planting trees and maintaining woodlands at our projects, and that is how our work has developed now,” explained Mell. “We offer forest schools for children, while adults come in to learn about conservation, cook on a fire together, do coppicing, learning woodworking skills, and so on. Some may need support through addiction or mental health issues, and often they come to us when nothing else has helped.”

“Forest schools are a different type of learning: emotional learning and childhood experiences. It isn’t a school as a building,” explained Holly James. “The children may meet for a full day weekly, for up to a year. Children don’t learn X, Y and Z, but we ask about their interests and if, for example, it is animals they like, we will look at birds and wildlife. Each child is looked at independently.”

“We do Accredited Forest School training here at the Green Light Trust” said Mell. “The overarching ethos is the child-led-ness of the approach. One of the six principles of the forest school is to take risks, social, emotional and physical, and we use tools, ropes, fire… so you need to have policies and procedures, to know that those knots are going to work, that you are using tools safely to support the children.”

In Norfolk, GroWild work with groups of parents and toddlers, offer holiday playschemes, or provide activities for children who have been excluded from mainstream education because of anxiety issues or struggling in the classroom.

“The Green Light Trust’s core work is using the environment to support marginalised and disadvantaged adults and children to reach their full potential,” explained Mell.

If experiencing woodland is so good for all of us, why don’t we do it more?

“There is more and more of a distance between us humans and nature. I think the problem is a question of what you don’t know,” Mell said, thoughtfully. “How do you know you would like to climb a mountain if you have never tried it? After all, we have a second generation now who have grown up with screens, and parents who spend a lot of time gaming, (and that’s great in moderation), but less time is spent going out playing, as our generation did.”

“Our connection with the environment has been lost over the years. How we feel outdoors, makes us take a step back from life” said Holly from GroWild. “In the woods there is no judgment, and it’s not about achieving, or rules. A wood gives children, and adults, the permission to play. Ten minutes a day spent outside increases both our mental and physical wellbeing.”

Not every child will be able to attend a Forest School course or holiday activity, so what advice would Holly and Mell pass on to parents, carers and grandparents who are heading for woodland in Suffolk and Norfolk this summer?

Holly James, GroWild:

In a wood you don’t have to “do” anything. You can just walk, enjoying the experience. Children will naturally explore, climb trees and use their body.

Let the kids lead the way, and follow them as they explore, even if it means spending ten minutes looking at a leaf or a bug. Get down to their level. Don’t just think about “activities” but enjoy the magic.

In the summer wear long sleeves and trousers, and avoid areas of high grass and bracken, to avoid ticks. Actually, the best time for a woodland walk is in the autumn when it’s cooler and there are fewer mosquitoes about!

Mell Harrison, The Green Light Trust:

Investigate! Get down at the children’s level. Squat. Look at what they are looking at. Investigate what is going on, use a magnifying glass, look closely. Take a margarine tub so if you find any bugs you can collect them but put them back when you’ve had a look.

Perhaps, before you go to a wood, together with the children, write a list of what you are going to hunt for: something small, something sparkly, something as big as your hand, something as tiny as your fingernail….

Go prepared. Take a raincoat, suntan cream, food to nibble on… and if you are feeling uncomfortable, tired or cold, don’t tell them! It is better children model your joy of nature rather than any negative feelings.

Be quiet. Switch your phone off, and sit somewhere magical, to sit and watch and listen.

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in August 2019)