Dragon's Sneezes, Earwigs and Gruffalo

Helen Fisher discovers the magic of a Forest School set deep in the heart of the Dorset countryside

Dragon’s Sneezes, Earwigs and Gruffalo

Helen Fisher discovers the magic of a Forest School set deep in the heart of the Dorset countryside 

two younger children that they’re going to spend the day at a Forest School. “I don’t want to go to school in the holidays,” piped up 10-year-old Patrick, sounding suitably miffed. Once I explained that this was going to be as far removed from his usual school day as he could possibly imagine, he and his sister, Kitty (6), can’t wait to pack up their lunch and set off on our woodland adventure.Dorset Forest School was launched last summer by Maddy Irvine and Jill Hooper. It’s a Community Interest Company, which means that they’re non-profitmaking; everything earned is ploughed back into the business. Maddy has two young children, and Jill, who is a qualified primary school teacher, is expecting her first baby. Both women feel strongly that as the world becomes increasingly computer-driven and ‘virtual’, children are missing out on the fabulous educational and free resource that is the Dorset countryside. With a shared vision they created the Dorset Forest School, providing children from just a few months old to age 15 with an opportunity to connect with the natural environment. And in educationalist Jill’s opinion, you’re never too young to embrace the great outdoors.“Even at 9 months a baby can engage with the woodland,” she enthuses, “80% of the brain develops in the first three years of life. Babies find all the leaf shapes and patterns fascinating. Even doing something as simple as banging two twigs together is a way of improving hand/eye co-ordination.”The concept of Forest Schools originated in Sweden in the 1950s, and the English Forest School network was set up in 2002. Unlike other forms of outdoor education, which generally concentrate on team building, challenging activities or competitiveness, Forest Schools are based on nurturing, supporting and developing individual self-esteem.Patrick, Kitty and I meet up with Maddy, Jill, and a group of 17 boys and girls aged between 5 and 10, in the car park at Thorncombe Woods near Dorchester. The course lasts for four hours, and a few of the children, who had obviously attended before, are gagging to get started. Some of the others, my own included, looked a little unsure of what to expect. But they needn’t have worried. Maddy and Jill have a very natural and instinctive way of bringing the group together, and soon they’re all tramping through the woods together like a bunch of excited elves. Their guided walk takes them deep into the woodland, and although we’ve only walked for half a mile or so, it soon feels like we’ve entered into the heart of a magical, deep, dark wood. En-route the children stop, at Maddy’s behest, to listen to a woodpecker.We arrive at a camp, a private roped-off area of mixed woodland, exclusively retained for Dorset Forest School courtesy of Dorset Countryside. “They have been nothing short of amazing in helping us set up the school,” says Maddy. “We simply could not function without their permission to use their woods, and Lawrence Weston, their Ranger, has been so supportive of us.” Jill and Maddy hope that one day their school will eventually be able to buy its own plot. “A little piece of woodland designated just for teaching would be brilliant. It would be great to have the benches and tables we make with the older groups, on site permanently, as well as a proper fire circle,” she says, “and I dream of owning our own composting loo!” Some of the activities require the children to work as a group; like when they construct a shelter suitable to house different types of animals. As a democratic team they have to identify which part of the woods they would like to inhabit and what their living requirements might be. During this planning session, an ambitious little girl wants to carry a log that’s obviously far heavier than she is and Jill shows her how to shift it safely. “If a log is really big and heavy, and long, you can pretend it’s a dog on a lead and drag it behind you!”The children also venture out to collect ‘natural treasure’ in little wicker baskets and are encouraged to show-and-tell about their favourite finds. One girl positively squealed with delight at finding a jagged piece of shiny flint, while another was in raptures about her soft and squidgy lump of moss. A small dark-eyed boy proffers an earwig, followed by a smooth and shiny rhododendron leaf. And at last a little girl, who looks like she’s going to burst if she doesn’t get her say, proudly exclaims: “Look everyone, I found a tea bag!”Pooling their natural treasure trove as decorations the children are given a lump of clay to construct their own interpretation of a ‘Gruffalo’. They are all so immersed in this creative activity that it takes a while for them to notice that behind a large tree a real live ‘Gruffalo’ is lurking. When one boy eventually spots him and tells his companions, their shrieks of excitement become deafening as they all desperately want to glimpse this mystical woodland creature.Some children were worried about getting messy, though not my two! “We positively encourage them to get messy,” laughs Maddy. “We reassure them that they can get clean again.”The course ends with us sitting around the fire circle, where everyone gets an opportunity to set light to the kindling they’ve gathered, using a fire steel. “We call it a Dragon’s Sneeze,” laughs Maddy. “This is one activity that always grabs their attention.” On the way home, I ask my children what were the highlights of their Forest School day. They argue about what was best, the Gruffalo or Dragon’s Sneezes, but both agree they’d love to go to Forest School again.

Fact Box Dorset Forest School is running regular courses throughout the summer holidays. These include:

Storytelling25 July: Swanage, 11am-3pm; 26 July: Turners Puddle Heath (near Bovington and Wool), 1pm-4pm; 11 August: Bridport, 11am-3pm

Camp Fire Cooking28 July: Turners Puddle Heath, 1pm-5pm; 1 August: Swanage, 1pm-5pm; 2 August: Thorncomb, 1pm-5pmDen Building8 August: Swanage, 11am-3pm; 9 August: Thorncomb, 11am-3pm

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Woodland Wildlife15 August: Swanage, 11am-3pm

Woodland Art16 August: Thorncomb, 11am -3pm; 18 August: Bridport, 11am-3pm

More details at dorsetforestschool.org. To contact them about availability e-mail dorsetforestschool@gmail.com or call 07957 390087

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