We know that children are easily engaged in natural and interactive environments where they can learn through play. Forest Schools use outdoor education and visits to woodlands to boost personal, social and technical skills, whilst the Steiner approach encourages an appreciation of nature through regular practical outdoor activities like gardening. But have you ever thought of the woods as the ideal place for a spot of maths, English, or even a history lesson? Teaching Trees, an increasingly popular project developed by the Yorkshire division of the Royal Forestry Society, have started “the outdoor classroom”, which they feel happily contributes to National Curriculum learning and the best bit is that children of any age or level can join in. Inspired by this, we uncover some practical tips on how you can turn the woods into a new learning place for your children.
ENGLISH IN THE WOODS When you think about it, there is so much well-loved children’s fiction that captures the magic of nature. Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in The Willows, and even The Hobbit all draw on the English woodland for inspiration. The Woodland Trust suggests reading outdoors to get you in the mood, and what better way to enjoy the English language, than to read a book under the shade of a tree with the sounds of nature all around? Teaching Trees run two-hour sessions providing children with woodland management skills through a variety of hands-on activities. At the end of the workshop children are encouraged to reflect on their experiences through creative writing; exploring themes on their relationship to nature, wildlife and the surrounding landscape through poetry and storytelling. If you’re doing this at home, you could go walking in a park or forest, and on your return get your children excited about creating a story with the various elements of their journey and the animals they have encountered. Make it Practical: For more literacy and woodland resources check out the Teaching Tree’s Children’s Online Activities including: Know Your Trees quiz, Woody Wordsearches and Tree crosswords available at teachingtrees.org.uk.
STUDYING SCIENCE Possibly the most obvious of subjects to be learning in the great outdoors, and so much more engaging than a text book or test-tube. We all remember the thrill of finding creepy crawlies under a leaf, or getting our fingers into the garden soil to plant seeds. The outdoor classroom provides an opportunity for children to learn the names and roles of different trees, collect feathers and identify birds native to their area. Most importantly, it gives them the opportunity to see, touch and smell the different stages of the life-cycle of the local eco system: from fungi to seedling, pollination and flower, and back again.
As the WWF explains, from the air we breathe to the wood we love, trees play a massive role in the lives of everything on this planet, and protecting them is vital. Learning in the woods is a great way to bring these important conservation issues to life. It is only in coming to appreciate nature through their own experience that children can go on to develop a sense of respect and care for the environment. Why not get your children to think about all the ways in which trees benefit us – from the fruit we eat, to the paper we write on. Make it Practical: For handy resource sheets and additional learning games, the Science section at teachingtrees.org.uk is useful. Also check the downloadable resources at wwf.org.uk.
OUTDOOR MATHS You wouldn’t necessarily link maths and the great outdoors, but there is lots of counting to be done if you study an individual tree. For instance, growth rings in the trunk of a tree are used to identify its age in years. Through tactile and visual exploration, children can physically trace not only its age but can also estimate its height too. Adding and subtracting with seeds is a great way to introduce simple maths. Rounding and estimation in big numbers, as well as small, is a useful aid to help children visually understand their sums. Woodlands provide a great environment for shape and space learning opportunities too. Try guessing games such as ‘Which tree did this leaf come from?’ or matching leaves to pictures in tree field guides. Make it Practical: Nature Detectives are the children’s arm of The Woodland Trust. There are plenty of resources at naturedetectives.org. uk . We love the downloadable Woodland Log Book. Looking for lines of symmetry in found natural objects is also a fun exercise that involves playful investigation. Another idea is to create a simple treasure map following a pre-prepared route, marked out with the aid of a compass from tree to tree.
HANDS ON HISTORY ‘Ancient trees are living relics of incredible age that inspire in us feelings of awe and mystery,’ says Chris Hickman of The Woodland Trust. ‘They have helped shape our history, and will help shape our future if we let them.’ The Trust are currently running an Ancient Tree Hunt that aims to map all the fat old trees in England. Teachers are actively encouraged to get their students involved in this project by charting the age, location and timeline of ancient local trees. Researching significant historical events that took place during the lifespan of a particular tree or forest is another interesting way to bring history into perspective. As we already know, the forests of England are steeped in history and legend. For instance, where would Robin Hood be without Nottingham’s Sherwood Forest? Spending time in the woods, walking and playing amongst trees that have been around for hundreds of years, is a brilliant way for children to sense the passing of time, and put whatever they are learning in History or English lessons into context. Make it Practical: Get involved in the Ancient Tree Hunt at ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk.
CREATIVITY AMONG THE TREES As American writer, Emerson, wrote, ‘Each moment of the year has its own beauty, a picture which was never before and shall never be seen again.’ Nature seems to be our greatest artistic inspiration, and as the seasons unfold one into another and the colours continue to change, it is easy to see why. Since children work visually, the woodland is a great place to get them drawing and creating, paying particular attention to line, texture, light and shape. Teaching Trees suggests bark rubbing with crayons for younger years, while Key Stage 2 pupils can develop their imagination through more complex activities that get them improving their control of materials, tools and techniques such as clay modelling of collected objects like leaves and conkers. The Boggards art project, organized by Teaching Trees, encouraged children to create fantasy tree-dwelling creatures made from clay or Plastiroc after a walk through the woods. This art project could easily tie in with any number of children’s stories, including ones children may have written themselves. Make it Practical: Photography is another way for children to work interactively and combine science and art skills. Photos recording the cycles of nature can make a fun seasonal collage project. Painting is also a great woodland-based activity that will help them understand colour, light and shade. Ask your kids to capture the different flora in bloom, or closely examine the environment as it moves towards winter hibernation. Watching these cycles will help children understand day and night, as well as the transition of the seasons.
Learning with trees can provide a rich and enjoyable environment in which to bring to life many of the skills taught in your children’s classroom.
Louisa writes on alternative lifestyle and green issues. She lives on a sail boat and blogs at talesfromthewatersedge.wordpress.com.