Forget lesson plans, Annie Woods lets nature and spontaneity be her pupils' inspiration during lessons in the forest.
I'm ready and prepared with all my teaching resources recycled from last year's mini-beast topic. But does being ready automatically mean that I must have all my plans in place before we start the lesson, right down to the last detail?
How about this as an alternative? Dressed, excited and about to venture out to the local woods. When we get there we'll see what happens and what interests the children.
Freddie has found a ladybird. As the youngster realises he has my attention, he looks up saying: "He wants to come home with me." And then pretending to be the ladybird says: "I can't fly as I have no wings. I can only be his pet."
He turns back to me, asking: "Why can ladybirds swap legs when they walk? He can climb up my zip. He's never gonna fly off me. He can climb up the tree."
The thing that struck me is the level and time the children take to talk, narrating their current activity or interest in great and fascinated detail.
The outdoors seems to afford them greater time and space, along with an attentive adult or peer, to range far and wide. Descriptive language was very evident that day, with insects being a particular focus of attention.
It turned out to be much more engaging than introducing a topic on mini-beasts and sticking to 'the plan'.
As a result of Freddie's interest I took a pair of secateurs to the woodland on our next visit just in case he pursued his learning and interest in where the ladybirds make their homes. He did, and we discussed the materials available; a selection was made of thin hazel twigs which were too long for Freddie's purposes. I modelled how to use the secateurs safely and he concentrated for an hour cutting the twigs into lengths; through estimating and careful cutting they were all, pretty much, equal length.
I could not have planned for this specific, mathematical activity. It occurred due to the nature of the resources, the time, my support and his purposeful interest. Occasional walkers on a nearby public footpath stopped to look and fondly reminisce about their own school days.
Big questions and inquiries emerged; having enjoyed deep puddles in previous weeks, Ollie noticed the water had disappeared and children were digging to find it. Ollie said: "If you dig all the world, there will be no world left."
Outdoor discoveries, imaginary play, exploration, nature and science, big spaces that afford climbing, crouching, rolling, mixing, painting and building – all within a risk-assessed environment that allows children to be safe to do, rather than safe from doing.
This is how our version of Forest Schools, an idea from Scandinavia, can enhance early schooling. This involves spontaneous learning in a young woodland, safely hedged and fenced on all sides. But you don't need your own dedicated forest: school fields, the local park, a walk to some trees or a hill should all be a part of every school day.
There are kindergartens, nurseries and schools in Scandinavia where the Forest School model is not an 'add-on' but an integral part of the curriculum, either on-site or a short journey away. Children as young as three appear to know what clothes are appropriate for the weather. They are skilled in tool use, the boundaries of the woods, the places they return to, the mushrooms they collect even.
They count, make up songs, are more environmentally aware, measure and experience flow, gravity, and forces. They also seem healthier and more alert and their voices are heard; through play, recall, questions and problem-solving.
Work and play in the woods act as catalysts for their own stories, using photographs, research and inquiry back in the classroom. They also learn to manage their own risks. Our role is simply to eliminate hazards which they may not see and then to let them take us on their own learning adventure.
After every session, it is not just the children who are alive with ideas; as a teacher I return amazed, thoughtful and already planning for the possibilities that may occur next time.
Annie Woods is an experienced early years lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. She has a particular interest in outdoor play environments and children's fascination with natural elements. She currently supports a pre-school in setting up Forest School sessions and was editor of the recently-published Child-Initiated Play and Learning: planning for possibilities.