Using the woodland as an alternative to the classroom

Many young people struggle with school, but for young people with social, emotional and behavioral difficulties, school can be an extra struggle due to issues with concentration, confidence, listening and communication skills. They can be labelled as disruptive, defiant and disrespectful. Truth is they simply struggle not to act out because they do not have the skills to be able to conform to what society think students should behave like.
Giving young people the opportunity to take their learning outside allows them the space to develop their own learning style. It enables them to learn in an environment that doesn’t mark or grade their work. Something so simple can make such a difference and over time can transform the most disengaged student and help aid their transition back into education.
I have worked with students from year 7 – 11 for the past 6 years. Some from mainstream school, some from pupil referral units and some from specialist behavioral schools. All of these students have engaged in a work programme that has taken them into the woodland for one day a week to engage in a range of activities. The student’s attendance ranged from 6 months to 3 three years and in that time they learnt to develop confidence and self-esteem, they learnt how to understand and manage risk, they developed positive relationships through team work and they came away with a sense of achievement, not failure. Some of the students also came away with ASDAN Awards and Unit Awards by working alongside environmental, adventure and bush craft programmes.
Many teachers that I have worked with over the years refer to these students as constantly ‘bouncing off the walls’. Being in the woodland means there are no walls, only freedom to be who they want to be. There are still rules, strict rules when working with fire and tools, but they are adaptable rules, ones that work for the student and the project worker. The students plan their day, they risk assess every project they undertake, they set themselves achievable goals and gain help from each other when needed. They reflect on what has gone well and where they feel they need additional help or support. They are learning independence, they are problem solving, they are improving their own learning through their newly learnt listening and communication skills.
At the end their time within the programme, the students have a new found respect for learning, they are able to regulate their behavior and are often reintegrated back into full time education.
Being able to work with students in a woodland environment is a privilege, I get to see the potential that too often others fail to see. More educational establishments are starting to see the benefits of using the outdoors as an alternative to the classroom but it needs to be more widespread. Forest School is growing in the UK but is still mainly early years and primary. Offering a full alternative curriculum woodland programme for secondary schools and pupil referral units is successful, and can help make positive changes for the young people that are at risk of not only educational but also social exclusion.

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