If you go down to the woods, you will be surprised

12th June 2009 at 01:00
Spending time in a forest is beneficial not just for toddlers, but for teachers who can receive professional development

The sound of babyish laughter echoes through the woodlands at the Camphill Rudolf Steiner School's country estate on the outskirts of Aberdeen. Wide-eyed toddlers are exploring the forest and the adults are watching quietly, enjoying the woodland stillness.

When staff from a local family centre first came here with a group of toddlers on a Nature Nurture session, some were sceptical about what a walk in the woods could achieve. The children are from families where there has been substance misuse and most are on the child protection register.

"I was pretty cynical," admits family centre worker Katrina Darroch. She is now on her third course of visits, in sessions where Waldorf education and outdoor learning are used in a therapeutic context.

Evaluating children's progress is part of the CPD for visiting professionals like Miss Darroch, who has watched children being transformed by their outdoor adventures. "One boy just from coming here for 10 weeks is a completely different child, and I do put it all down to this," she says, looking up at the trees towering above.

"A lot of our children are taken into town in a buggy and never get to walk around freely, so we try not to hold their hands here unless they are really unsteady, just so they get as much freedom as possible."

Terri Harrison is one of the organisers of this project. "Our approach to Nature Nurture is unique. It incorporates elements of all sorts of things like the Nurture Network. They work with attachment disorder, to help children develop good secure attachments and feel safe and secure in school. We take elements of that and apply it to working in the forest."

Continuing professional development sessions are delivered to teachers and other professionals visiting Camphill with groups of children: "We teach the staff who come here about intervention to help," says Mrs Harrison, who has taught at Camphill for 20 years.

"The main thing is teaching them how to build relationships with the children, where you really tune into the child's learning needs and get right down to their level. It's very child-led - even though we have structured activities - and it's teaching the staff to do that."

Visiting professionals from schools and nurseries are encouraged to discover the therapeutic and educational potential offered by outdoor learning, which has evolved at Camphill over decades of caring for children with special needs. "Sense of touch is important for children who are feeling traumatised or anxious. So working with a sense of touch gives them a sense of well-being and being safe," Mrs Harrison explains.

Some children may associate touch with being hit, so discovering the feel of wet grass or the softness of sheep's wool as they plod along the edge of the fields allows them to experience a more gentle touch at their own pace.

For teachers and children used to bells and rigid timetables, the woods offer freedom from deadlines. "A lot of the time, one of the hardest things for people to learn to do is slow down and take your time and look," says Mrs Harrison.

Throughout the walks, adults are one-to-one with the children and record every tiny detail of progress and change in their behaviour. This is documented after each session and compared against initial assessments and goals.

Children from local nursery schools have already benefited from the woodland experience, to boost their confidence before they start school. After the summer it's hoped to extend the programme to offer outdoor learning opportunities to primary school children, if funding allows.

Family centre worker Anne-Marie Milne says: "It does surprise me, I didn't think this would make as much of a difference as it has in all the children. They have all grown in some way, whether it's in walking or running or confidence and self-esteem and behaviour. They are a lot calmer as well."


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