If you go down to the woods today..;Primary

12th June 1998 at 01:00
... you'll get a bit of a shock. Three-year-olds wielding kitchen knives and starting fires - that sort of thing. But don't be alarmed. 'Forest schools' can give pre-school children just the experience they need to cope with later life. Martin Whittaker gets his wellies on for a spot of hide-and-seek in Somerset.

From deep in the woods comes the excited clamour of children's voices. There's a distant "One, two, three", followed by "Where are you?" "Over here!" booms Gordon Woodall in reply. Soon the children come into view, weaving their way through the undergrowth towards a shelter made from logs and tarpaulin lashed to tree trunks.

It's a cold, overcast morning, but despite the spots of rain Gordon is getting a fire going. The three and four-year-olds are looking forward to cooking chocolate bananas in the embers.

But first there's work to do. Some of the children are armed with saws - adults' tenon saws - for cutting saplings, while others are helping to build the little shelter where they will have their lunch. In a few weeks' time they will be learning to build fires themselves.

Welcome to Britain's first "forest school", run by Bridgwater College Children's Centre nursery in the heart of the Somerset countryside.

Gordon Woodall, the school's manager, says that these forays into the woods help to build the children's confidence and self-esteem.

"We had one particular child who didn't like to be touched," he says. "She would scream if anybody picked her up. She came out here and she would just stand and watch the trees swaying. Then she would go and touch the trees, and hug them.

"Eventually she started to hold people's hands and integrate into the group. Her communication grew, and she could play with the other children."

The idea came from Denmark, where forest schools are an integral part of pre-school education. Five years ago Bridgwater College nursery staff visited one such scheme, liked what they saw and used it as a model.

At first they took the children out to explore the fields and hedgerows around the college campus. Then they leased two small woodland copses from a friendly farmer. The location, six miles from the nursery, is secret.

The nursery children are bused out there every Wednesday for three-and-a-half hours, come rain, shine or snow. Many are town children and this is their first real taste of the countryside.

But how do parents react to the idea of their little ones wielding saws and penknives, lighting fires and getting covered in mud? "Initially, there were lots of anxieties," admits Alison Oaten, manager of Bridgwater College Children's Centre. "So we run parents' evenings prior to the children coming out."

Safety and security are paramount. The "One, two, three - where are you?" chant is repeated often, and as the children arrive Gordon sits them down and goes through a safety routine, telling them what to do if they get lost.

There's also a high staff-to-children ratio, with college nursery nursing students accompanying the group, and there's always an emergency pack with first-aid essentials and spare clothes.

After their safety talk, the children go off into the trees to play hide-and-seek. Some days they learn to identify the different types of tree, and bring back samples of plants. On other days they cook sausages on the fire for their lunch. If it's wet, they might camouflage their faces with mud.

The children are taught how to use saws and penknives safely by Gordon Woodall, a former soldier and a qualified outdoor pursuits instructor. "At this age they're exploring, and they're going to find kitchen knives or come across fire or a box of matches," he says. "If they understand these things properly and understand why they're dangerous, they're not going to have so many injuries."

George Robinson, an expert in self-esteem and behaviour management at the University of the West of England, Bristol, believes that this kind of pre-school experience fosters learning ability later in life.

"I think it's brilliant," he enthuses. "We would normally say to kids that that's a dangerous environment. But I think it's giving them responsibility and teaching them how to co-operate, how to support each other in a different environment that makes them think. They are getting success in terms of how they feel about themselves."

The Department for Education and Employment has given its backing, too. Last year the forest school helped Bridgwater College's nursery become one of seven in Britain to be chosen as an early excellence centre.

Now the college wants to expand the scheme. Alison Oaten and Gordon Woodall are starting another forest school in nearby Porlock, and the college is in talks with a London nursery to see if the ethos can be applied in an inner-city environment, using city parks instead of rural woodland.

Meanwhile, as the kids tuck into their chocolate bananas and nursery staff brew tea on the fire, Gordon Woodall smiles and says: "I'm a lucky man. What a way to earn a living!"

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