Mama Beech sits on the edge of a Forest School site overlooking the copse that hides basecamp. There's a strip of woodland the children explore, a field of space to run, and the huge tree shields the Fairy Glen quiet space. This site is on school grounds, and across the year as many classes as possible in a two-form Primary take part in full 2 hour FS Sessions... Until Lockdown interrupted and Coronavirus changed the rules.

Emerging back into school life routines have changed, lessons have altered, classes are no longer the same size, or pupils, and restrictions due to social distancing and cross contamination make even the idea of Forest School Sessions as I know them fraught.

So it's time to adapt.

We've made the decision that all the children need as much outdoor time as possible. This stems from some children having been cooped up during the lockdown period and needing the space and freedom to move, the assertion that it's harder to catch Covid-19 outside (but not impossible), and the fact that we all benefit from being in nature.
Class teachers are taking as many lessons as they can outside, non contact sports are back, playtimes are a little longer and Forest School is up and running.

There has to be concessions.

Classes are now 'Bubbles'. Independent groups of pupils who mix with each other and the teaching staff in their room, but not with other Bubbles. Arrival is staggered to avoid a 9am crush. Playtimes are staggered and spread out across the school grounds so that Bubbles do not mix, lunch is in the classroom etc. etc.
So allowing all dozen or so Bubbles to have a FS Session has to come with some rules - many of which remove the traditional routine and activities of Forest School.

Firstly the Forest School Leader never enters the Bubbles. The children are brought outside, into the fresh air, ready to walk to basecamp. They are still expected to, and reminded to, keep 2 metres apart. 

The snugness of basecamp with it's 30 logs nestled around the firepit is now a more sparse view with 10 logs in a circle and a spare 5 set a little further back to allow for any Bubble with the maximum of 15 children.

The rules of Forest School are recited and how their importance covers Coronavirus as well as FS Safety is discussed.
Forest School changes are also discussed - there will be no camp fires.

  1. To prevent smoke in the surrounding residential roads where people may be ill with breathing difficulties
  2. To remove all chance of fire or burns which would require the arrival of emergency services (putting the school and the services at risk of contamination) 
  3. To remove one of the hazards that COULD require a pupil or adult to attend A&E
In 12 years of assisting and seven years of running Forest School Sessions I have never needed to call upon emergency services, but now is not the time to test this.

Tool Use is limited. We cannot use safety gloves because of cross contamination so penknives and saws are stowed away. As with the campfire above, the increase in risk may not be huge if these are not worn, but we need to negate the possibility needing First Aid as it requires close contact at the very least.
Tools with plastic handles that can be wiped clean between uses IN THE SAME SESSION are the only ones we use - and currently that is peelers only. Many FSL do not like peelers because they are 'for vegetables'. I disagree, they are for 'peeling' and it doesn't matter what. You can whittle away bark with these easily, and in times gone by swap to a penknife for carving. They are also useful to use with EYFS when they start tool use.
You can still cut yourself on a peeler - as any cook will tell you! But the blade is less overt and as the children are supervised this brings the risk down.
Activities like weaving the whittled-clean sticks with string, wrapping them in wool to make wands, creating mobiles, etc means that those who wish to sit and enjoy quiet time outside can do so.

In order to have time for all Bubbles in school to have a session a week we have had to reduce the session time to 75 minutes. Meeting the children outside has meant that preparation time doesn't eat into the session. When the time is up, the children line up by basecamp 2 metres apart, removing the need to group again around basecamp. This also removes a snack and drink, and time to discuss what they have discovered. Personally I am making up for this by chatting to the children more while they are exploring. In Forest School we normally pull back and observe while the children learn independently, sometimes all our attention is on tool use or an activity, and those going free range are very independent! I am trying to allow activities that class staff can support, or that children can access independently, so I am free for a rolling plenary as they explore. 
Once back at the building they go inside with their assigned TA who has remained with the Bubble outdoors, wash their hands and return to their classroom. This format has meant that the children so far have had at least 60 minutes of exploration time during the reduced session.

Their activities. I cannot lie and say they are always 2 metres aware form their fellow pupils in their Bubble. They are reminded frequently and staff do watch, model it, ask it of them, and encourage it as much as possible. But it doesn't always happen. Staff however keep the distance from each other and the children.

TREES! If wooden climbing frames are tied up in hazard tape and banned from use - should the children be climbing trees? Should they be lifting logs to hunt for bugs? Should they be on rope swings...? Or rolling tyres...?
Having looked all of this up it seems to be unknown. There is definite evidence that the virus CAN survive on these surfaces for some time, but there doesn't seem to be a recorded incidence of anyone catching Coronavirus from a tree, or tyre, or rope.
However all this is outside in the air, with a breeze to disperse germs and daylight to help kill off the UV shy virus.
We may regret it, but it has been risk assessed as possible but unlikely, and we have safeguards in place. Only one child up a given tree at a time (unless its huge with different routes up and they can remain over 2 metres apart whilst climbing, then maybe 2, but this has to be under the watchful eye of an adult!). On returning to the school building ALL children will wash their hands - and each year group currently have their own allocated bathrooms to use.

If we take any threat, however small, or unproven, into account the children will have to spend both Forest School and Playtime sessions stood in their own space alone, touching nothing, and unable to move unless in formation to ensure they do not inadvertently move into someone else's space!

Offsetting this with letting Children have some freedom of movement, some experience of nature, the opportunity to self assess (some) risks, to challenge themselves, to try something new, to retreat and enjoy the calm spaces, to explore the wildlife around them, and to learn new skills is tricky, because there are few higher stakes than a global pandemic!

Following the same advice that allowed schools to open, that children are less likely to catch Covid-19, that when they do they have it mildly, that the threat to all humans is reduced by social distancing, hand washing, not touching your face, and limiting how many people you mix with, two things become obvious. 
  1. This scenario means that the adults are always the ones most at risk in a School or Forest School setting, and 
  2. That the FSL is the 'weak link' who 'mixes' with every Bubble. 
To counter this all we also acknowledge that the adults involved are more at risk INSIDE the building than outside. 
A 9 acre classroom with no walls and the sky as a ceiling is as aired a space as you can find, especially on the breezy plateau we occupy!
And as a Forest School Leader all I can do to minimise cross infection is to remain outside, never enter the children's classroom Bubble, keep 2 metres apart from the children and the staff who accompany them, and let said staff attend to any minor stings from nettles or scratches from brambles that may occur.

We are lucky. Forest School is on site, there is no 'travel'. 
Almost all of our pupils have had experience of a full FS Session and are accepting of the restrictions that are in place. 
Many Forest School settings that are not attached to a school have plenty of other issues to deal with and have found it impossible to reconcile cross contamination with outdoor toilets and hand-washing facilities. I have no idea how difficult longer sessions would be with the restrictions on activities and tool use etc. Certainly the progression of skills has been overtaken by the overwhelming need to address a PSHE curriculum. 

Most of my discussions outside with children are about Coronavirus, what it was like being at home, if and who they have lost during this period, how their family has been affected, how they feel their summer and next school year will be different. They talk a lot about what they have missed out on, and what annoys them, what is unfair, what has upset them. They share stories from Lockdown that are funny, and sad, and hurtful, and good, and bad...
Then they race the field and run it off, climb a tree and bask in their achievement, find a quiet spot and sit and listen to the birds. They shout encouragement to each other, and directions, and advice on how to conquer their fear of climbing higher, or their fear of a spider. 

These Bubbles seem to be including each other more, devising new games and adapting old ones to allow for distancing, and forming a bond, maybe not of friendship but of solidarity.

Will this work until the end of term?
Who knows. If anyone gets sick it will be whole new ballgame! 

If Government bring in change, and they inevitably will, it may get easier or harder. 

If the dreaded 'spike' in the graph of new infections rises rapidly, we will have to review School let alone Forest School!

Is it working right now?
It certainly seems to be.


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