Finn, who’s seven, puts succinctly what he likes about spending the day in woodland, away from the surrounding streets: “It’s really nice because there’s not much like fuel all over your face, it’s not like you’re in a car.”
He’s on a half-term play-scheme run by In the Sticks, a social enterprise set up to offer children ‘forest education’. Originally a Danish pedagogy, forest education is now a nationally accredited teaching method in the UK, providing access to outdoor experiences which inner city children would otherwise go without.
“We want to show children that outdoors is an exciting place, not separate to indoors,” says Olivia Woodward, co-founder of In the Sticks.
“They start to feel a connection to it, and it is good for their physical and mental health. They learn what their bodies and minds are capable of and what risks they can take, within a safe environment.”
Basanti, 7, is enjoying the change of scene. “It’s nice because you get to see birds and flowers and lots of nature, things like that. At my school it doesn’t really have much nature stuff, it’s just slides – there aren’t really very much plants.”
As well as increasing their familiarity with nature, forest education aims to demonstrate to children that they can get results from using their imaginations. This is a different kind of risk to falling over and hurting yourself: putting your idea on the line with the chance nothing will come of it.
“Forest education is child-led,” says Woodward. “The children come up with ideas for what to do and adults problem-solve alongside them, providing them with skills and knowledge. If they need to use a certain tool, we teach them properly how to use it before they start.”
This might mean building a structurally sound den, making a flute out of clay or brewing elderflower cordial. When (at the end of National Tree Week) the Hackney Citizen visited the In the Sticks base at Abney Park Cemetery, we listened to a group of seven year-olds discuss friction and the chemical properties of magnesium as they sat scratching sparks into small mounds of cotton-wool and tree bark.
Mac, 7, proudly showed us the toy guns he and the other boys had whittled over the morning while John Baldock, office-manager at Abney, answered children’s questions about Victorian burial practices.
Woodward has documented how children’s learning benefits from being outdoors.
“Two hours per week helps children concentrate. They feel calmer, better in themselves, and their desire to learn increases with real experience; they can write about something
they’ve been doing with greater motivation than starting with an abstract task.”
The organisation also runs sessions with parents of children for whom English is an acquired language. The forest provides a relaxed setting for language practice. “People feel good and calm so they are less worried about making mistakes, and speak more.” School governors thinking of selling off their playing fields could consider taking a leaf out of the forest education book.