Case Study: 5 Years of Forest School: Tŷ Gwyn Special School, Newport, Louise Gladwyn, Class Teacher (ESNS)
I teach at a school which caters for children who have “Severe Learning Difficulties”, “Profound and Multiple Learning Difficulties”, “Autistic Spectrum Disorders” and “Challenging Behaviour”. Since becoming a Forest School Leader five years ago, I have run projects with groups of all of the above and found each one to be totally different, extremely rewarding, lots of fun and a huge learning curve for myself and my staff as well as the pupils involved.
For those pupils who have severe or profound and multiple learning difficulties, the forest has provided an ideal vehicle for a sensory curriculum. It has been marvellous to use the environment to teach these individuals about themselves, each other and the natural world of which they are citizens. The greatest challenge has been in changing attitudes of others towards the concept of exposing such vulnerable individuals to the elements. There has been a great deal of cotton wool to unwrap! But it has so been worth the struggle for the reward of seeing young people who the world at large would write off, becoming comfortable and confident in the outdoors. They have, without exception, developed a sense of joy and ownership that it has been my privilege to share.
Young people on the Autistic Spectrum are typically locked into their idiosyncrasies to some extent. Being transported to an alien environment such as the forest can be unsettling at best. Gone is the security of the familiar and the routine. Everything, even getting out of the bus amongst the trees can prove a challenge. Despite my own misgivings, I have seen nearly every child gradually relax in the forest and push the boundaries of their own little worlds. With carefully tailored experiences and the 1:1 support of familiar staff, most of the pupils I have worked with have been able to embrace the forest in order to learn much about themselves and their environment. Skills, and sometimes obsessions have proved transferable e.g. one young man had a thing about lampposts when he first joined the group. He could not pass one without hugging it and giving it a lick!!! After a few visits to the forest, he was persuaded to hug trees instead! Still obsessive but a little more appropriate perhaps?
There is so much I could say and so many benefits I could list about the positive impact of the forest on myself, my staff and the “special” pupils I have worked with. Suffice it to say that, after 12 years or more, there is nothing I would rather do and no other group of individuals I would rather do it with!