Outdoor learning – how we transformed behaviour in six months
How building bug hotels and shooting arrows helped this school support a behavioural revolution…
- by Lucy Bone
Last year, as I was getting settled with my new class, I realised that two of the boys simply could not be in a classroom.
Each had very different needs – one was an introvert who suffered with high levels of anxiety, whereas the other would run out of the classroom and had a lot of avoidance issues. Both were in Year 2.
The boys weren’t at a level where an outside agency would give them support, and we knew that, without some form of intervention, they would not be ready for the step up to Key Stage 2 when it came.
We decided that in order to really help them, we’d have to do something very different, so we came up with an alternative forest school concept.
We’re very lucky here because we have a woodland area in our grounds, so we capitalised on that and completely changed their environment.
Most of our activities involved mud and we got them both one-piece waterproof suits and wellies so that they could jump in as many puddles as they liked without having to worry about getting their clothes wet or dirty.
Forest school activities
We found that forest school offered a uniquely effective space and approach to reach both boys, despite their differing needs.
The outdoor area was created with natural borders to aid containment, and the children knew that it was a safe place to express their feelings, even in crisis.
The space also meant their classmates could easily be moved away, allowing us to help the boys develop self-regulation strategies for their behaviour.
To develop this skill, we set up a range of activities such as hitting swimming noodles against trees, using hammers (under supervision!), climbing, and rope-pulling.
The boys were able to access these activities at any time, turning negative energy into positive activity.
We also used nature to explore and promote empathy. The boys really struggled with this, so we needed to find a way of working on it that didn’t involve their peers.
We built animal shelters, and practised carefully catching insects and admiring them, then letting them go. This is also a great way to encourage children (especially with additional needs such as ADHD) to be still and quiet.
It opened up a great opportunity for us to explore how people see us. We talked about how if we are loud, too close, or grabbing at them, animals will run and hide.
But if we are calm, and move more slowly and quietly, then they may come towards us. We talked about how this is also true with peers.
We gave the boys a range of challenges that built up as the term went on, starting with easily-achievable targets to build confidence.
The challenges then became harder but still achievable, perhaps with the help of another person. Lastly, I set challenges that pupils might fail at – including fishing, woodwork, building bug hotels and shooting arrows – and gave them strategies for coping with failure, to develop their resilience.
At first, both boys would have regular outbursts, but we were able to push their comfort zones gently, and over time, in a controlled environment, to increase their ability to regulate their emotions and prepare them for an eventual return to the classroom.
As we moved forwards, we brought the boys’ classmates out to join them in some sessions. We built two dens so that they had their own space, and no one else was allowed in unless they were invited.
When they were in class, both boys were, at times, rude and destructive, so I understand why their teachers found it hard – but that meant they had a strong feeling they didn’t belong in class and, as a result, they were very isolated.
By building the dens and allowing them to choose who came in, we were giving them a sense of control and belonging.
Within six weeks, we saw a marked improvement in their behaviour. They started to want to come to school and we could see their resilience had improved.
At this point, we started to reintegrate them with their peers in class, bringing them back in to some lessons. We reintroduced English and maths first, making sure that everything was done in a gentle and positive manner to keep building their confidence.
At this point, we were still working towards learning goals, but not necessarily in a conventional way. Instead, we took more of an Early Years approach and encouraged them to follow their interests so they learned what they needed to in a way that enthused them.
For example, one of the children was really focused on video games and we wanted him to be able to connect more with reality.
We knew he loved dinosaurs so, in forest school, we created ‘dinosaur land’ with him and we produced a film about it. We wrote a script together and really encouraged him to develop his skills by getting involved – he loved it!
After six months, both boys were spending every morning in the classroom and every afternoon in forest school. I supported them in the classroom so that we could maintain a consistent approach and continue the relationship they had built up with me.
A year after we started working intensively with them, both children returned to the classroom full-time. They still have 45-minute forest school sessions four times a week, but they are now able to cope with life in the classroom without displaying the problematic behaviours they did previously.
They still need emotional support, so I think they will continue to have dedicated time for this for the foreseeable future, but it will help them to be able to stay in class.
They are both catching up with their learning, too. One of them has really shone and has caught up with his peers, although he is still a little behind with his writing.
By the time they reach upper Key Stage 2, we want both of them to be at the same level as the rest of their class. When I see the progress they’ve made it fills me with so many warm feelings – they have come so far, it’s just amazing.
For us, the forest school has given us another way to engage with and support our children. Spending a winter outside with those two boys was certainly a unique experience for me – but it achieved the right result and it’s benefited our whole school, not just pupils in crisis.
Sometimes, you just have to be brave and think, ‘this isn’t working – what can I do differently?’
Lucy Bone is pastoral lead and a Thrive Licensed Practitioner® at Maple Cross Junior Mixed Infant and Nursery School in Hertfordshire.