Early learning out in the open

17th November 2000 at 00:00
IF you go down to the woods today, be sure of a big surprise - certainly if you are in Bishops Wood near Stourport-on-Severn in Worcestershire.

You might not find teddy bears having a picnic but you will find their three and four-year-old owners making tools and building fires and shelters.

The children are among the first to take part in a pioneering early-years project designed to build confidence and self-esteem Courses could last up to a year with children spending half a day a week in the woods.

The original idea for "forest schools", as they are known, hails from Scandinavia where the scheme forms a key part of pre-school provision.

"This is the most protected generation of children we have ever had," said Alison Hitchins, early-years development officer for Worcestershire.

"Little ones these days don't climb trees, they don't play in the street because of the traffic and we don't let them roam across a field because you don't know who is around."

The forest schools project aims to introduce children to the great outdoors through a structured programme which ties in directly with the Government's early-learning goals.

"Children are encouraged to develop their learning in all areas through this programme - physical, emotional and intellectual," said Mrs Hitchins.

"They learn about wildlife and enironmental issues but it is also about co-operation."

Once in the wood they look for animals and examine insects and plants through magnifying glasses. Later they learn how to make and use their own tools and then build shelters and fires.

Twelve workers from private, voluntary and council-run early years groups have been taking a BTEC forest-leaders award since earlier this year.

This week they were being assessed as they led a group of children into the woods.

Worcestershire County Council hopes to extend the scheme to older pupils - particularly disaffected youngsters and those with speech and language problems - and believes they will benefit from the outdoor team-building.

The project is being run by the county's environmental education centre, Bishops Wood, which is partly funded by the council and the National Grid.

Sheila Sage, primary inspector for Worcestershire, said: "We wanted the idea to be introduced as early as possible in a child's development so that we can start building up self-esteem.

"Children don't discover the outdoors so much anymore. They don't play in the street, they don't go beyond the garden boundaries.

"That is why discovering the outdoors matters so much today. But there is a certain irony that it has to be 'delivered' when children used to do it themselves."

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