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First wheelchair-users go down to the forest school

Rustling leaves, the crackle of dry twigs catching fire, wafts of pungent wood smoke...

For the band of teenage pupils from Ty-Gwyn special school who have profound, multiple learning difficulties (PMLD), these evocative outdoor sounds and smells create a novel sensory environment, especially for those whose disabilities are compounded by visual impairment.

Thanks to the dedication of their teacher Louise Pearce, and to Forestry Commission Wales's (FCW) commitment to widening access, pupils from the Cardiff special school are the first wheelchair-users to explore the deep woodland, Fforest Fawr, cloaking a hillside on the capital's northern periphery.

"These children should be allowed to experience nature in all its glory,"

says Mrs Pearce. "In the case of pupils with PMLD, it's all too easy to focus on what they can't do. But it's far more productive to look at what they can achieve, and what experiences we can give them."

The FCW's all-abilities woodland trail, and the coaching provided by Forest School, a charitable organisation dedicated to providing all youngsters with a stimulating outdoor learning experience, has enabled Mrs Pearce to extend her woodland excursions to her wheelchair-bound pupils.

The success of her previous forest outings with an autistic group convinced her of the benefits to all children with learning difficulties. But she says more funding is needed to open up woodland learning to more schools.

Mrs Pearce believes the forest school concept is of particular value to young people with learning difficulties, as this group tends to be over-protected.

"By coming into the forest we are doing something that maybe the parents wouldn't think of attempting because of the level of physical support the children require," she says.

FCW looks after 320,000 acres of public forest owned by the Welsh Assembly.

The organisation has a 10-year education strategy for woodland learning.

Its fourth annual conference celebrating woodland education took place last week in Snowdonia national park, north Wales.

More than 70 Year 6 pupils from 18 schools discussed problems related to woodland and sustainable development in other countries - ranging from wild boar hunting in Lithuania to forest fires in Canada.

They then compared their findings with woodlands back in Wales. "Going out into the woods is an exciting and worthwhile experience for both able-bodied and disabled children," explains Sue Ginley, FCW's education and health manager.

"It's also highly beneficial for those who find formal classroom learning difficult."

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