Blog post by George Farthing, Education & Wellbeing Officer

With the new academic year underway, we thought we would share some of the work carried out by the Education & Wellbeing team at the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. After a very busy summer term of school visits to our reserves, we are settling back into our regular Forest School sessions. These sessions can involve whole classes at school sites, but the bulk of the work we do is taking small groups or individual pupils out to our reserves.

Some of the young people who come out with us have learning difficulties or disabilities, whilst others need additional emotional support. They range in age from 4 to 14 and come from all over the county. The aim of the Forest School sessions is to encourage and inspire young people through positive outdoor experiences. We provide opportunities for children to experience nature in a safe, secure and hands-on way, while building ‘soft skills’ such as independence, resourcefulness, emotional self-regulation, resilience, and self-confidence.

So what happens at a Forest School session? All our sessions are different, as they are very much tailored to the interests and needs of the pupils and to the changing seasons on the reserves. This term we will be foraging for autumnal fruits, printing patterns using blackberries, looking at dew-covered spiders’ webs, and of course toasting some marshmallows and sipping on hot chocolate on colder days. In the winter we might often cook over a campfire and use tools such as bowsaws or knives to whittle. In spring and summer the children can be found relaxing in hammocks, looking for nests and butterflies, or building dens.

A key part of the Forest School ethos is to encourage young people to assess risks and take risks they otherwise might not. I experienced an amazing moment with a young boy with complex needs who had a lot of bravado but wouldn’t go anywhere near anything he thought was risky. After around four weeks of building up to it, he sat on a rope swing; although a short-lived and clearly scary for him, he was really proud for the rest of the day. The following week he not only sat on the swing but swung on it too, for an hour! He was really happy having a completely new experience and proud that he had overcome his fear.

The one-to-one and small group sessions are designed to run for a long period of time (sometimes we work with a pupil for more than 18 months), which gives us the opportunity to build strong relationships and see the pupils develop. The Trust once worked with one young person for around two years; at first, he was reluctant to engage with activities or work with others, but by the end of the two years the staff had gained his trust and were able to make the sessions about him and his interests. Over the last year we have spent hours running around The Devenish reserve with him, playing hide and seek, having spud gun fights, and making fire with flint and steel.

We are very lucky to be able to give young people experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t get; we build positive relationships with the pupils and offer them a safe place where they can just be children.

Read more about Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s Forest School Programme, including activities for schools and groups, the benefits for pupils, qualifying as a Forest School Leader, and taster sessions for adults.