Natural setting for all kinds of lessons
When parents in Fauldhouse, West Lothian, heard that their P6P7 children were going to learn how to use tree loppers, bow saws, knives and axes, some were a little anxious. Others had reservations about the educational merit of school hours spent in a wood.
Eighteen months on, the same parents are full of praise for forest education. But the real enthusiasts are the Falla Hill Primary children themselves, who walk 15 minutes to the forest school on Wednesdays.
"Instead of doing maths inside, you get to do maths out here," say P7 pupils Ryan Hanlon and Alexander Dodds.
"We've really enjoyed the forest school because you get to be outside. You get to go out and have fun while sitting round the fire.
"We've learned how to build fires and shelters, how to use tools, that education isn't just inside, that nature is really important."
The boys show off their knowledge of trees. "This is a sitka (spruce), because you can pull the needles off in ones," they explain. "It's easy to remember because sitka is single and pine is pairs. Larch is lots because its needles are in little groups."
Community and environment rangers Andy Gallacher and Jim Smalls, of the Forestry Commission Scotland, have led the project since the beginning, taking 26 P6P7 pupils for half a day a week or a full day every fortnight to learn in the natural environment. Their allocated woodland patch is the size of two and a half football pitches and the commission and school emphasise that each task covers some aspect of the curriculum. In the 18 months the forest school has been running, there have been no accidents.
Now the commission wants to extend the initiative to all schools which are within 1km of national woodland. Primary and secondary schools across Scotland will be encouraged to use their local woodlands as outdoor classrooms, so that children can be taught in an environment which stimulates the senses. It has launched a Woods For Learning strategy to act as a guide.
The Falla Hill Primary pupils have built a large teepee-style hut which acts as their forest school. They have also built five shelters from wood and vegetation.
"Last year we were here in the snow and we built an igloo," say P7 pupils Kelcey Hedges, Nicola Savage and Nicole Marshall.
"We've learned how to respect the trees. If you break a branch and it's green, it's still alive, but if it snaps off and it's dark, it's dead.
"We've learnt how to use tools properly and how to use safety hats and gloves.
"We've also learnt how to find animals from footprints."
Mr Gallacher says the children have responded with enormous enthusiasm to the forest school. "They have given their all and taken each task in their stride.
"They've listened to the safety instructions and put them into practice.
Building dens, cutting paths, and making musical instruments: no task has been too great. It has been an absolute pleasure working with them.
"They've learnt how to build a fire and light it with a single match, and without a match. We get them to find 10 sticks, each the width of a pinkie, then they get ones two fingers wide and so on until they've built up their fire.
"We give them a flint, to make a spark, and cotton wool, which catches fire easily. The challenge is to keep the fire going all day.
"We have a kettle. They boil their own water, so they can have a cup-a-soup or hot chocolate.
"If it's carefully done and managed, it's perfectly safe. Without a fire, they'd get cold in the forest."
The other primary in Fauldhouse, St John the Baptist, also participates in the school and West Lothian Council plans to appoint a full-time forest school leader.
Forest education, which originated in Scandinavia, is "huge" in England and Wales, says Mr Gallacher, and now that Scotland is embracing the initiative he says: "Ideally, I'd love there to be a forest school leader in every council."
Parents report that their children sleep and behave better after being at forest school. Teachers have noted improvements in attitudes and behaviour, too.
"We've been working with the kids for 18 months and in that time we've had no fires, no burnt-out cars and very few litter problems," says Mr Gallacher. "They go home and say to their big brothers and sisters: 'You can't do that. That's our wood.' They've got a real sense of ownership.
"If people learn to respect forests when they're kids, they'll have that for life and they'll pass that on to their families."
Sally York, the commission's education policy adviser, says: "For us, it's not just getting the kids out and using the woodland for learning. The important thing is they are able to use this to supplement their learning at school.
"The woods have something magical about them and you can see the kids'
enthusiasm for it. It's good for their confidence and self-esteem."
The Fauldhouse pupils are going to the Scottish Parliament on February 9 to make a presentation to MSPs. "Dear Minister, we feel very strongly that every schoolchild should have the opportunity to go to a forest school,"
GET OUT THERE
* One-sixth of Scotland is covered by trees.
* An estimated 90 per cent of schools lie within 1km of woods, whether publicly or privately owned.
* There are 200 schools in Scotland within 1km of Forestry Commission woodland.
* The National Forest Estate covers 660 hectares.