by Jemma Cuthbert
Hi, I’m Jemma and I’m one of a team of Education Officers with the Royal Forestry Society (RFS). I’ve been delivering woodland education sessions for school children in the Rockingham Forest area since 2019 and hope to work with many more schools and children now the RFS is a partner in the "Building the Links for Rockingham Forest" project.
As it says on our website, the Royal Forestry Society is dedicated to sharing knowledge on the art and science of woodland management. Whilst much of this knowledge sharing is between the adults involved in managing woodlands and in the forestry training sector, the Education Officers’ role is to bring trees, forests and woodland management alive for children. We work with landowners to offer schools free visits to local woodlands in a programme called Teaching Trees.
What's a typical Teaching Trees session?
Well, my sessions are extremely varied: a lot depends on what woodland site we’re at, what time of year it is, the age of the children, and what topic or curriculum area the teacher has asked me to link to. But I always dedicate at least part of each session to three aspects:
studying the trees at the site and learning some of their names;
thinking about what resources we get from trees and how we can balance this with the needs of the species that live in woodland;
“tuning in” to the woodland by really exploring it with sensory activities, like closing our eyes to help pick out all the different sounds we can hear.
I weave in the topic-linked activities around these three aspects. These can be maths based, such as estimating tree height and calculating tree age from trunk circumference. Or literacy - exploring the wood with different senses to come up with descriptive phrases to use in a story. Classes can create artwork in the wood inspired by the works of Andy Goldsworthy, or have a go at ancient woodland crafts, like making string from nettle fibre or lime bast (the part just under the bark of a lime tree). Or, most frequently, sessions can be science based, e.g. hunting for mini-beasts in different microhabitats, using keys to identify living things, or playing games about food chains, photosynthesis or pollination.
The Teaching Trees site at Deene Estate
One favourite game involves the children running around as particular species of butterflies, looking for the correct plant to lay their egg on. This teaches the children that different caterpillars eat different types of plant. So when we manage woodlands for butterflies, we have to think about the separate needs of the larvae, as well as making sure there is enough open space in the woodland for nectar-source flowers for the adults.
This doesn't sound like Forest School?
RFS woodland education sessions are different from Forest School: they are a type of environmental education, specifically focussed on learning about woodland ecology, woodland management and the use of trees as a resource. Forest School, on the other hand, is a child-centred approach to learning within a natural environment that is usually a woodland – it’s a long term process of regular sessions, focussed on the child rather than on providing activities for them to learn about the woodland itself. Because Forest School has become so popular amongst schools and nurseries over the past couple of decades, other types of learning in the outdoors sometimes get a bit forgotten about! I love the philosophy of Forest School and think that when it’s done well it is an incredibly valuable thing for children to do. I’ve noticed that classes that do it regularly are much more at home at my woodland sites and ready to engage with the learning in my sessions. I think children should experience both!
A mini-beasts activity
But for me personally, my passion lies in environmental education: in trying to increase as many people’s understanding of ecology and land use issues as possible, starting really young (and also aiming at the teachers too!).
In order to make better decisions about how we manage land and use natural resources, we all need a better understanding of both the fine detail (what species are in a woodland.… how they fit in the food web… how they are influenced by changes in habitat) and the big picture: if we want to make things from wood, where are we going to get it from? How can we balance growing and harvesting timber with having as healthy a woodland habitat as possible? Just like not all farming is equal in terms of how nature-friendly it is, not all forestry is equal. These are big, complicated issues, but children have an amazing capacity to take on big ideas, if you engage them and pitch it at the right level. I love the creative process of thinking how to get concepts across with activities and games. And in terms of the curriculum, hands-on learning is essential: you can’t properly learn about living things and habitats by staying in the classroom!
What I’m looking forward to with the new project
Working with more schools in the area! Hopefully, some schools will choose to do our Junior Forester Award: this involves six sessions, so the children have much longer to build up their understanding and feel like they are really getting to know the woodland.
In previous sessions, I’ve been shocked to hear some children say they’ve never visited a woodland before. Some have been reluctant to get muddy, to touch soil or leaves. They’ve been scared by insects flying past them, and squealed when they saw a spider. But by the end of the session, they’ve surprised themselves and their teachers. They’ve held mini-beasts in their hand and become fascinated with them, and felt much more relaxed in the wood. It is these moments that I look forward to most – triumphs for both that individual child and for getting more people reconnected with the natural world
Get in touch
The Teaching Trees programme is all about bring trees forests and woodland management alive for children. Perhaps you are a teacher or teaching assistant and would be interested in your local school being able to take part? If you’d like to know more about Teaching Trees please get in touch by emailing me.
Here's some examples of what we do
Once a tree, or never a tree?
For this activity, children find items I’ve set out along a trail, such as toys, food containers and kitchen utensils made from wood, metal or plastic, plus willow baskets, charcoal, books, rubber gloves, clothing made from fabrics such as viscose and polyester, and pictures of furniture, buildings and foods. They sort these into groups: things that are made from part of a tree, and things that aren’t. We discuss the items and materials they are made of, including where wood, metal and plastic come from. We think about what might be the impact on the environment in terms of how we get the material, how much energy/fuel/chemicals are used in making it, and what happens when the item is thrown away – does it rot? Can it be easily recycled? Wood has the least issues with disposal and energy/fuel/chemical use, and provides habitat whilst growing, and carbon storage until it rots. I use the charcoal (from Rawhaw Wood, near Corby) and willow baskets as examples of items from coppiced trees, where the tree can be cut repeatedly for hundreds of years without dying.
The children work in teams to measure round a tree trunk, then use this to calculate roughly how much carbon is stored in that tree. They look at an information table to find an activity that emits a similar amount of carbon, or new item to buy that emitted that much during production. We usually do this as part of a wider session on climate change. It really brings into perspective how planting more trees (in the right place) can be a part of the way we tackle CO2 emissions, but also how it can in no way be the only solution!
A magical session for younger children who are doing the Enchanted Wood topic at school. As they move through the wood, the class find little doors in the trees and a series of messages from the Folk of the Faraway Tree, instructing them to use picture keys to collect five tree leaves they know the name of, plus something soft, spiky, rough, smooth and interesting. They then search for the decorated tree, to lay their offerings underneath. If they complete the challenge, the Folk of the Faraway Tree will allow them to stay in the Enchanted Wood for a while, play games and relax! In some sessions we also create descriptive phrases about what they find, to take back to school to use in their writing.