6 January 2017

Exploring woodlands, hunting for bugs and building shelters are increasingly becoming all part of a day’s learning in Sheffield: The Outdoor City.

Sheffield is at the forefront of a movement which sees children from as young as three months old learning not within the confines of a classroom, but outdoors amid nature – and that movement is growing.

There are an ever-increasing number of organisations across the city enabling youngsters to explore the outdoors and learn through play, including Croft Corner Forest School Nursery, the Woodland Toddler Group at Ecclesall Woods, Middlewood Nature Nursery and Sheffield Woodland Kindergarten, based at Lynwood Gardens in Broomhall.

Former lawyer Mhairi Walker created the first forest school nursery in Sheffield when she founded Croft Corner, which runs forest school sessions in Ecclesall Woods.

Daily activities for Croft Corner’s children include woodland crafts, wildlife conservation, mini beast hunts, tool work and den building.

The mother-of-three said: “Forest school offers so many open-ended learning opportunities which is brilliant for a child’s emotional and physical development. It promotes children’s self-confidence, increases their activity levels and can also make a difference to the whole family.

“Sometimes you see a family who aren’t particularly outdoorsy, but then they become inspired by the activities their child is taking part in, and start spending much more time outside. That’s really rewarding to see.”

Mrs Walker added that she’s seen first-hand the increase in Forest School provision across Sheffield over the past two years.

She said: “These outdoor learning opportunities are pretty unique, and part of what makes Sheffield different.

“Staff from Sheffield City Council have been brilliant, giving us use of Ecclesall Woods and being really interested in what we do. In the future, I’d really like to see more Forest School provision spread across the whole city, in all of its communities, as the benefits are just so great.”

Sarah Lamb runs the Woodland Toddler Group which meets at Ecclesall Woods every Friday morning.

She said: “When the children explore in the woodland, it’s an all-round sensory experience. They see, feel and hear new things.

“Young children love learning new social and physical skills outdoors in a really simple way – perhaps such as by climbing, which they might not be allowed to do elsewhere, or by seeing us build and light a fire, which they usually won’t do at home.

“I’ve seen children mesmerised by a campfire. The fact that we can create that, from nature, and cook popcorn on it, is a great learning experience for them, and teaches them things that you just don’t learn in a classroom.”

Philippa Thompson, senior lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Sheffield Hallam University, designed and introduced a module on Forest School studies which she now delivers to undergraduate students.

She said that the success of the Forest School initiative in Sheffield is partly down to organisations across the city working together, and the fresh stream of qualified Forest School graduates that the Sheffield Hallam course provides.

Mrs Thompson said: “One of the very special things about Sheffield is that there are so many people around who are interested in outdoor learning, and who are working together to make this happen.

“There is a growing movement, as people see the potential and the need for this sort of education. For us, it’s about enthusing people who haven’t thought about working in the woods before, and enabling them to get outdoors, inspire others, build shelters and learn about nature.

“It’s not about formal education, it’s about inspiring the Forest School teachers and then allowing children to take the lead.”

This move towards outdoor learning comes as Sheffield is increasingly cementing its reputation as The Outdoor City. Last month, for example, it was announced that Sheffield City Council wants to attract a developer to transform a site at Parkwood Springs into a nationally-significant attraction.

A mountain biking trail centre, urban bike park or national snow sports centre could be on the cards, or a combination of different adventure activities, depending on market interest.

For more information on all things outdoors, visit www.theoutdoorcity.co.uk