This post has been co-written by myself and Bex Connor, an experienced primary teacher who has worked in all primary year groups and is currently teaching a mixed early years/year 1 class and leading Literacy, Science and Outdoor Learning.
For the last 5 years children at our school have been taking part in Forest Schools activities. Different classes would spend either a whole morning or afternoon session on a Wednesday in a wood near to the school doing all sorts of lovely, engaging and exciting activities, helping them learn new skills and develop teamwork and resilience, amongst other things. Over the year each class would get 3 half terms worth of Forest School-ing. It was great. It was something the children looked forward to. It was something current and prospective parents liked about our school. It was very expensive.
Learning outside is important to our school ethos and the benefits of outdoor education are many and well documented so we didn’t want to stop altogether but we are a small school, with a small budget and we had to come up with another plan.
So with a heavy heart we ended our partnership with Forest Schools and took control of our own outdoor education. And thus, Welly Wednesdays was born. Money still needs to be spent, but a fraction of the amount that was being spent previously, and it’s being spent on our school grounds and developing our own team rather than going to a 3rd party. This means it is sustainable and securing excellent outdoor learning opportunities for children at our school for generations to come.
The other benefit of going ‘in-house’ is giving the teachers autonomy over the planning and delivery of the sessions. Our children are still able to build on practical skills they are taught week on week, but now what they are learning is much more closely linked to our own bespoke curriculum while also ensuring coverage of the national curriculum. In the few months Welly Wednesdays have been taught, we have covered areas of English, maths, DT, science, PE, art, music and geography. Ofsted noted in a November 2018 inspection, ‘Pupils enjoy a broad and balanced curriculum which takes advantage of the school’s rural setting.’
Funding wise we have used some of our Sports Premium funding to train staff as it: increases their confidence, knowledge and skills; engages all pupils in regular physical activity which supports a healthy lifestyle; and increases the profile of Outdoor Adventurous Activities across the school. We’ve also been able to take advantage of a few grants to help us with specific building projects – like making a fence and getting some solar powered lighting for our round house. Our school office (like most schools) receives emails on a semi-regular basis letting us know about various grants and funding opportunities. These are normally for specific reasons and to go towards projects, rather than just offering money for you to spend as you please. However, if you have projects in mind and can evidence how the money will be spent supporting an ongoing scheme, you might just find that no one else had the time to fill in the form and you win your school a bit of extra funding to support your vision. The trick is to make sure that initial email gets forwarded to the right member of staff, preferably one who loves a good form.
We are still developing how we plan and deliver the sessions, but the beauty of having different teachers planning their own sessions, means that the experience is very different for the children as they move through the school.
EYFS sessions are largely about discovery. They focus their learning around a book (e.g. ‘Superworm’) and each week they receive a hook, such as a letter. This letter sets out some of the activities the children may access during the session and also inspires them to write back when they return to the classroom. The benefit of not following the Forest Schools ethos so closely is that the learning can cover the NC more closely. Therefore, EYFS and KS1 have been able to cover seasons, weather and similarities and patterns in the environment. A sample week for EYFS would look like this:
Hook – A large dragonfly made out of pallets and a letter from ‘Superworm’. The letter introduces a Hero Insect – the Dragonfly. This becomes the focus of the week.
Activities – 1. Create a dragonfly using leaves, petals, seeds on the ground. There is an opportunity here to discuss classification of insects and their similarities. 2. Digging in the garden. 3. Sowing seeds in the polytunnel. 4. Creating a bug hotel. 5. A mindfulness area – a selection of books, breathing activites led by an adult, cloud gazing and tree hugging.
In KS2 we’ve been teaching children important life skills. As we continue to develop our outdoor learning provision, we plan to have a curriculum which builds on these skills each year so by the time a child has been with us from Reception to Year 6 they will be to achieve a number of tasks using a great range of skills.
We are very much in the trial stage of our Welly Wednesdays and are trying to get the balance right between covering the curriculum and allowing the children the freedom to explore our environment.
We are blessed with beautiful school grounds, with a range of different areas to take part in a range of different tasks and activities – vegetable patches, a pond, a tree ring, a field, a round house, a green house. While I recognise we are in a fortunate position, I also think that most of what we’ve done can be replicated elsewhere with a bit of imagination. However large or small your school grounds, it’s important to make the most of them and using them to help deliver a broad and balanced curriculum, bespoke to your area and your children’s needs.