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Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009
Art of survival at Forest Schools
Nick Wale
Nick shows local school children how to use tools safely

Ray Mears and Bear Grylls have given bush craft kudos with their programmes about outdoor survival.

Nick Wale is a local bush craft enthusiast and a Forest Schools leader.

Forest Schools teaches young people about the outdoors, letting them try activities such as making camp fires, chopping wood and climbing trees.

Nick is keen to share the knowledge he's learnt over the years and runs Forest Schools Birmingham.

Passion for nature

"I've always had a passion for all things outdoors, with fond childhood memories of weekends and holidays exploring local hedgerows and woodlands and further a field the mountains of north Wales and the coast," explains Nick.

"Observing wildlife; pond dipping, birdwatching, looking after injured animals and birds, climbing trees, making dens, getting lost and finding my way home again - all gave me a passion for the outdoors.

"Even now, my summers are often spent outdoors, be it in wild places or at gatherings, cooking on open fires and sleeping outdoors, meeting new people, sharing stories, playing music, learning new skills. I find these experiences inspire me when I return to the city."

Pioneering Forest Schools

Nick Wale
Nick shows local school children how to use tools safely

Nick was at the forefront of Forest Schools in Birmingham. In 2004 the Birmingham Forest Education Initiative (FEI) asked if he would be interested in training as a Forest Schools Leader and asked him to lead Birmingham's first Forest Schools pilot project.

At the time Nick was managing the grounds of Springfield Environmental Education Centre for children with special needs; a 16 acre nature reserve.

This is where he had learnt many of the skills - tree-felling, hedge laying, habitat management, green woodwork, gardening, vegetable production, art in nature and of course working with children in the outdoors.

Nick had also been advising schools on the development of their grounds. The Storywood at Perry Common Junior and Infants School was a neglected piece of ground that was turned into an oasis of trees and a fantastic wildflower meadow.

Nick says: "The Storywood was really the first official Forest School in Birmingham and is still actively used today for Forest Schools, environmental education and outdoor learning."

Forest Schools Birmingham

Following the success of the pilot at The Storywood and a simultaneous programme at Springfield, Nick branched out as a freelance and set up Forest Schools Birmingham with his partner Afric Crossan.

Nick Wale
Nick shows the children how to make a sturdy fence

Nick continues: "Interest in Forest Schools and outdoor learning has grown considerably in the last few years and we have had to diversify to cope with the demand.

"We now employ freelance practitioners and artists to deliver programmes with us, ranging from Forest schools, woodland taster days, craft sessions, school grounds development, gardening projects, sculptures, willow work, parent groups, corporate days and social forestry.

"It's difficult to explain a typical Forest School session without experiencing one, but our mission statement goes something like 'a journey of self discovery and awareness in the outdoors'."

A journey of self discovery

"We try to achieve the following," says Nick. "Learning fire safety using small campfires to cook and make drinks on, shelter and den building, green woodworking, tool use, games and storytelling.

"For those who are regulars, we do knots and rope work, craft making, art in nature, identifying and trying wild foods and identifying flora and fauna. All of these things encourage a positive relationships and emotional literacy."

Girl at Forest School
Learning to use knives safely is important in forest survival

Forest Schools are not about teachers and adults telling children what to do and how to do it. It's about them discovering things for themselves.

"It's child led learning aimed at developing amongst other things their confidence and encouraging an empathy with nature," continues Nick.

"These activities we do are said to improve gross and fine motor skills, encourage independence and assess risk taking awareness, as well as improving their knowledge of, and confidence in the natural environment."

Health and Safety regulations often mean children are prohibited from certain activities these days, and activities that were classed as 'normal childhood activities' 20 years ago, are no longer permitted. So how do the children react to being told they can learn to start a camp fire, cut things with knives, chop wood etc?

"With disbelief!" says Nick. "Kids love this experience, but are often hesitant or even scared at first until they are shown how to keep themselves safe outdoors through experience, nurture and confidence building."

Adult life skills

Nick continues: "They're taught to assess their own risk, taking an important skill for their adult lives.

Boy at Forest School
It's not all work at Forest Schools there's fun too

"The children are taught how to be safe around a small campfire.

"We are passionate about this experience for our children in the belief that it helps to demystify fire; over time they become familiar and comfortable around fire and act as stewards to newcomers ensuring they know all the safety rules, usually any initial enthusiasm for fire becomes a healthy respect which is often passed down to family members in turn.

"Children are also taught safe techniques for using adult size woodland tools, from secateurs to bow saws. They are often used in pairs which encourages communication, cooperation and respect - it is rewarding to see the pride on a child's face when they have just cut through a log or felled a small tree."

Looking to the future

Girl at Forest School
Children get to learn to use a bow and arrow

Like any project, the future of Forest Schools depends on funding.

"One of our biggest supporters is the Kingstanding Education Action Zone (RAIK) who currently fund six days a week Forest Schools delivery," says Nick.

"Other supporters are the Birmingham City Council Study Support Development Team, Kingstanding Extended Provision, and even the schools themselves."

For more information on Forest Schools see the Forest Schools website.


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