Forest school teacher Rachel Summers speaks to Milena Ruibyte about why it’s so important to get children learning outdoors
Parents living in urban areas such as Waltham Forest often desire safe spaces for their children to be able to both play and learn freely outdoors – but these are not always easy to find.
Social entrepreneur Rachel Summers is meeting this need locally by providing children in Walthamstow an opportunity to join her ‘forest school’ Curious Wilds.
Forest schools are specialised outdoor learning activities which complement regular education. They are led by trained and accredited teachers. Rachel first founded her forest school in St James’s Park three years ago, running sessions for primary schools, nurseries and local families who can come to play in and explore its wild spaces.
Having had previous experience working as a primary school teacher and teaching teenagers with various social and emotional problems, Rachel found that bringing children outdoors aided their learning. “I think it’s important for children to have a chance to play and explore without it always being to an adult’s agenda,” she explains.
“So often in a child’s life everything is structured around goals and targets. Free play is important as it’s how children learn best. It’s not just about academics, free play has a knock-on effect on all parts of learning.”
Since 2016 Rachel has been running forest school sessions for children aged from four to eleven years, where children are able to participate in activities such as birdwatching and craft-making. The idea was first evoked when she was walking with her child through St James’s Park and thought it would be the perfect area for an educational space.
“When I first started using it, it was a bit of a no-go area; there was a lot of drug use. But I was walking through the park one day with my little one when I was struck by all the butterflies and birds and thought this area is actually quite lovely.”
At the time there were few opportunities in Walthamstow for outdoor learning. Rachel decided to start up her school in the hope that children could experience what she was able to growing up.
“Living in an urban area, there is a disconnect, there’s a lot of parents who would really like their children to have that sense of being able to play freely like my generation did when we were younger, when we could play out. This is to give children that opportunity.”
Starting up a forest school in Walthamstow posed its own challenges; liaising with Waltham Forest Council was a struggle because Rachel had to obtain permission to run the sessions and pay to use the land.
“There wasn’t a form for what I was doing so it was a very long and complicated conversation,” she said.
UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs, was a huge help. Rachel was able to receive funding for her forest school level four training, which she will begin in December. Because there’s a limit to how many sessions Rachel can run by herself, it will enable her to train other teachers and allow more children to attend the sessions.
She adds: “Sometimes the outdoors is somewhere that we just travel through to get to other places but this gives children the chance to settle into the space – it gives them a sense of connection to where they live.”
This article is supported by St James Street Big Local in association with UnLtd, the foundation for social entrepreneurs. To find out more about UnLtd:
Call 0207 566 1100