A new way of learning? Why more local schools want to take the classroom outside

Hundreds of schools across Northern Ireland have expressed interest in becoming so called forest schools. Credit: UTV

A clamour of excited voices, muddy feet and the odd branch in hand and there is not a classroom in sight. The idea of children learning lessons outside in forests and fields can be seen as an idyllic Scandinavian concept. But hundreds of schools across Northern Ireland have expressed interest in becoming so-called forest schools. Hazelwood Integrated Primary is one of over 70 designated forest schools. It delivers a significant proportion of lessons outside and was the first in Northern Ireland to make the idea its own. “Learning doesn’t work around school bells,” says teacher Damian Magill. “[Teaching] doesn’t necessarily confine itself to classrooms, learning is at its deepest outside.” Those passionate about the concept insist it's not about scrapping the curriculum, but encouraging curiosity. “If you are doing math's inside and thinking about angles, we think can we do that outside with sticks or whatever is lying around outside,” says Brian Poots of the NI Forest School Association.

Brian Poots of the NI Forest School Association Credit: UTV

“The kids when they are outside are more engaged, they listen more and are more attentive." For education decision makers, the pandemic has presented a continual myriad of challenges but this concept is one the Education Minister is endorsing. “We are focused on emotional health and wellbeing.” Michele McIlveen said. “We have a number of projects linked to that so the focus is about adapting the projects schools have and being more creative.”

Hazelwood Integrated Primary Jim McDaid talks says there is real value being a designated forest school Credit: UTV

Being outdoors took on new significance during the pandemic. The hope is that this idea can help children reorientate from a disorientating season.

“We remember our own experiences from lockdown and where we went and we remember the Mourne Mountains and Cavehill, they became sanctuaries for people,” said Hazlewood Integrated Primary Principal Jim McDaid “These [areas] became overcrowded because instinctively we know that is where we had our restorative experiences and that is what we are doing for our children.