Mud, glorious mud!

Posted on 6th Mar 2020 in Curriculum, Outdoor Learning, Prep Schools Guide

Elizabeth Denyer, class teacher and qualified Forest School Practitioner at Craigclowan Prep School, explains why woodland is part of the curriculum...

Most children love mud. It’s just one of those things. And most of them are delighted to spend a couple of hours out of the classroom each week, in the woods, playing with mud. And sticks. What is it about mud and sticks that brings a smile to so many young faces? Couldn’t, or shouldn’t, they be keeping that kind of thing for the weekends, or for those long summer evenings when they can be outside in what we always hope will be warm weather?

At Craigclowan Prep School, we don’t think so, which is why all our 7-9 year olds spend time in the woods once a week as part of the curriculum. We, like many other schools across the UK, have a Forest School programme. Forest School is predominantly child led and focuses on making connections with the environment and building a wide range of skills through regular sessions outdoors over a prolonged period of time. It’s no quick fix, but it does fix all sorts of things.

Our children learn practical skills in the woods such as knot work, shelter building and safe use of fire and tools. These skills are valuable in themselves, of course, and the children feel a great sense of accomplishment when they can safely lay, light, toast a marshmallow on, extinguish and leave no trace of a fire, but to focus on these skills alone would be to miss the wood for the trees, so to speak. What they also learn are a huge number of ‘soft’ or ‘invisible’ skills, the ones that are notoriously hard to measure but that are essential to developing confident, caring, happy, successful, balanced individuals who are able to flourish whatever life brings them. Skills such as independence, interdependence, communication skills, concentration, responsibility, developing imagination and creativity, problem solving and pushing one’s own boundaries. Children gain confidence and understand the importance of supporting others and being supported, as well as what they can achieve by themselves.

How do these things come about? Through playing with mud and sticks. Through the freedom to choose whether to build a den, make a musical instrument or create a civilisation for imaginary people. Through negotiating with peers over who to work with, where to work, or how to share out resources such as the best holes for sticky mud or a tree with a bough at just the right angle. Through exploring something begun in the classroom and recreated or given a personal twist in the woods. Through showing peers what they have created and helping others to see it as they do. Through listening to someone else’s story or looking at someone’s creation and using their imagination to see things their way. Through turning over a log seat and losing track of time whilst absorbed in watching the minibeast world revealed beneath it. Through noticing that someone else needs help to finish their den, and maybe that is more important than their own project. Through succeeding in achieving goals which are self-set and making them a little more challenging the next time, and the next.

Do we really see the benefits of this in the classroom? Absolutely. We see improvements in motivation, focus and co-operation, in resilience and attitudes to problem solving. We see increased self confidence and a willingness to ‘have a go’. We see a more understanding and respectful approach to peers who are struggling or see things a little differently. And we aren’t the only ones. When we asked parents what they thought of Forest School, in an anonymous survey after the first term of running it, the answers were overwhelmingly positive. “We feel the addition of Forest School to the curriculum at Craigclowan has introduced a good method of applying team building, problem solving and practical tasks into their learning”. “Forest School has enabled him to gain confidence outside the classroom”. “He has become more confident in his academic ability... I believe that outdoor learning will have had a positive impact on his overall learning”. The programme has been running for four years now and parents remain convinced, despite the muddy clothes and wellington boots that go home each week.

As for the children? Well, they can have the final say ... “You can explore and learn new skills”, “It makes me feel adventurous”, “I feel very calm”, “...You sometimes even help nature” and “It makes me feel brilliant inside.”

This article first appeared in John Catt's Preparatory Schools 2020, which you can read here:

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