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How Forest School Lessons Can Help Learners With Autism

The forest school philosophy has something to offer all young people, says Gordon Cairns – but for those with an autism spectrum disorder, the impact can be especially dramatic...

  • How Forest School Lessons Can Help Learners With Autism

Late autumn sunshine captures smoke from the fire as it drifts through the trees, entrancing a teenage boy swinging on a hammock. “Look how far the smoke has travelled!” he exclaims. The others in the group, however, are too focused to notice, concentrating as they are on collecting wood and producing sparks from flints and steel fire lighters to create mini blazes of their own…

It may seem like I’m describing an idyllic camping scene from simpler times. In fact, this was the scene in an outdoor classroom just last year, attended by a group of eight boys, all with an autism spectrum disorder. In the classroom their behaviour could be challenging due to a number of issues – from high levels of anxiety, to an inability to take adult direction or work with classmates.

But out in the forest they were markedly more relaxed, less risk averse and far more cooperative. And while the above image may seem bucolic, the class was in fact learning about important stuff, such as working in a group, taking turns and making sensible decisions.

Natural advantages

These pupils, who attend a unit specifically for secondary school pupils with an ASD, however, are the lucky ones. A report published in 2013 by Nature England [PDF] stated: “... it was apparent that there is generally a lack of opportunities for children with autism to use their local natural environment.”

This is down to a number of reasons – not least the general reduction in the time young people spend playing outdoors, due to the pull of electronic attractions indoors, and the fear many parents have of letting their kids go off and play beyond their local streets. These factors are exacerbated for young people with autism, who can find it harder to form friendship groups, and whose parents often find it difficult to drag them out of their comfort zone to go and find something new.

This means that while fire building can be seen as the zenith of a block of forest school lessons for a class of typical teenagers, for pupils on the spectrum, the simple act of climbing a tree can be a major milestone. Indeed, it’s something the majority of young people with ASDs I take out as a forest school leader have never done before.

It’s an activity that combines working together, problem solving and doing something risky. The tree we use is a broad beech tree, which has stood for over 300 years in Pollok Country Park in the South side of Glasgow, and the aim is to get the whole class up on it. Through a mixture of hoisting, clambering, pulling, scrambling and cajoling, we tend to get everyone onto the branches – which can act as a great boost to their self-esteem.

Similarly, going into the woods is something that often causes initial trepidation. When I ask the class what animals we should watch out for, without fail someone will earnestly mention bears or wolves. (The correct answer is, of course, unleashed dogs). I wonder if this talk of dangerous animals is a way of contextualising the unnameable fears of straying off the path? Once the students have been persuaded to step off of the tarmacked path to walk through the trees, other issues arise. The dilemma of mud, for example – should it be walked around or through? What happens if it starts raining, or if we get lost?

Risky business

Then there are the aspects of outdoor learning that are perfectly suited to a young person with autism. It’s a chance to experience learning away from all of the sensory background irritation that someone on the spectrum has to deal with when studying in a municipal building, such as the ticking of a radiator as it cools down or the flickering of a fluorescent light that can break one’s train of thought. Outside space also lets students indulge in self-stimulatory behaviours, such as pacing, without drawing undue attention to themselves.

Being outdoors can develop other areas more naturally than in the classroom, too – such as the building of resilience, and challenging pupils’ aversion to risk. During one session in which the students were learning how to build fires, I was surprised to discover that a very capable 16-year-old young man had never struck a match before, since his parents were terrified that he might burn their house down.

To his mind, it seemed that giving him a box of matches was akin to handing him a loaded gun, and he was amazed when he was allocated the task of starting the fire for the group. After striking the match and seeing no one die, the sense of pride he felt from overcoming this challenge could be clearly seen in his expression.

Other tasks, such as teaching the young people how to use bow saws, knives and axes, further try to redress such imbalances in our risk-adverse society, whilst giving teenagers the sense that they are being trusted to act responsibly.

The forest school sessions have also had an impact on the activity levels of the pupils – almost all of whom are picked up and dropped off at their doorstep by either taxi or minibus every school day, which has an inevitable impact on their overall fitness levels. In the woods, students can walk for miles on a bird-spotting exercise without realising it, which helps to develop their endurance – since once they’re out in the forest, they can’t simply drop out of the activity and wait to be collected.

Gordon Cairns is an English and forest school teacher based at a unit for secondary pupils on the autism spectrum, and contributes articles on education, society, cycling and football to a number of publications

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