Sunday, 31 May 2015

Forest school - challenges to children's spaces for play

I'm incredibly proud to have supported the development of a Forest School as a headteacher. I always enjoy watching the group of children getting ready for their trip to the "forest", which is actually an area of Little Ilford Park in Newham.  You can get a bit of the flavour of what we do from the clip below (ignore the voice-over) - it comes from a short promotional film about Teacher Training in Newham.

To get the project going, we had huge support from Newham's Park Rangers, who were very keen to see young children enjoying the outdoors regularly. One of the big barriers to people - children, parents and staff - feeling confident in the park was sharing the space with dogs off their leads.

Dogs Trust helped us to carry out a leafleting campaign aimed at local dog walkers to explain the importance of making sure that dogs off leads could be reliably re-called (or alternatively, kept on their leads when in the park). They also briefed staff about how to stay safe, and keep the children safe, if a dog comes bounding up [PDF].

Corporate volunteers from Bank of America helped to today up the area we had chosen, removing some huge items of dumped rubbish as well as bags full of general litter - much of which blows along the North Circular into the park.

All in all, it was a lot of work to get the Forest School running. But it was worth it because even though the wild area in the park is small, and even though you can hear the traffic the whole time, it still feels like the "real outdoors" to the children.

However, the challenges of keeping a space available for children to play in go well beyond just the initial work outlined above. It didn't take long for the children's den areas to become a space for drug users and outdoor drinkers.

You can see that neither group comes unprepared - the drug users' equipment being brought along is new and sterile, and the drinkers bring along packs of disposable cups. Neither group takes any of their stuff away with them. So staff have to clean the area meticulously every week by getting in early (around 7am). The time I went along, we easily managed to fill up a carrier bag.

I'm not saying that the problems of drug use, outdoor drinking and the other activities which go on are easy to tackle. It's also good to see that the drug users have clean equipment.

But I am worried about what this says about the value of children's play - crowded off the streets by traffic and other dangers, and at risk of being driven out of parks by the rougher ends of adult life. If we want city children to have opportunities to experience the outdoors, to run and explore freely, we need to protect the limited number of spaces they have. Then we need to start claiming more. As Margaret McMillan wrote: "to move, to run, to find things out by new movement, to feel one's life in every limb, that is the life of early childhood."