Wexford Forest School initiative aims to bring learning to the great outdoors

By Amy Lewis

Published 15/10/2016 | 00:00

A pupil enjoying his new outdoor classroom.
A pupil enjoying his new outdoor classroom.
Orla Gallagher, Ciara Hinksman and Shane Furlong.

Bringing learning to the great outdoors is the aim of the new Wexford Forest School initiative which planted its roots in the Irish National Heritage Park recently.

The first forest school in the county to be funded by a local authority, it will welcome children from schools across Wexford to learn about protecting the environment, bushcraft, building shelter and identifying nature. It came together through the collaboration between Outdoor Park Manager Chris Hayes, Ciara Hinksman of Earth Force Education and local Forest Rangers Orla Gallagher and Shane Furlong.

'There is a phrase that has been coined by Richard Louv called "nature deficit disorder" that is used to describe the negative consequences that occur when children don't spend enough time outdoors. Parents and families are so busy with school, homework and dinners to be made so it can be challenging for them to get the kids out in the evening,' explained Orla. 'We are looking at this as a way of getting children to come and engage with nature and develop a passion for the outdoors. Kids are the future stewards of the environment. If they don't learn how to care for it and appreciate it, who will?'

Children from Crossabeg National School are the first to dive into the project and will visit the park each Thursday over the next seven weeks. Their first visit to the site was met with great enthusiasm from not only the children, but the teachers themselves.

'The kids had really positive feedback about the day and did everything with great enthusiasm. Even the third class teacher and principal Eamonn Codd were getting involved,' said Orla.

The forest school leaders try to encourage children to engage with nature in a fun way through the medium of stories and songs. They also teach them about wildlife tracking, pointing out various species of plants and animals as they explore the site.

'We teach in a way that is really accessible to kids,' said Orla. 'A lot of the time, they don't even realise the amount that they are taking in.'

The children will also be given the chance to channel their inner Bear Grylls as bushcraft and survival skills form a big part of Forest School. Making and using tools and building fires are some of the areas that they delve in to and although participants are young, the rangers ensure that safety is the top priority.

'We have about 22 students at the moment and there are at least three adults there at any one time,' explained Orla. 'A big part of what we do in the fire skill section is help them to develop their own risk assessment abilities. We teach them that fire is really beneficial as it keeps us warm and we can cook with it but also instil the risks in them such as the possibility of getting burned. These lessons will stand to children as they get older.'

Forest School programmes can run throughout the year, in all weathers, except for high winds.

The founders of Wexford Forest School all have one shared aim: to establish a regional hub for forest schools over time. However, they understand that it will take time for the initiative to grow and flourish. The current phase of Wexford Forest School is a pilot scheme with Crossabeg National School. Wexford County Council have provided funding of approximately €2,700 under Local Agenda 21 Environmental Partnership Fund for this first seven weeks. Following this, Orla said that they hope to spread interest to schools across the county.

'The first bit of funding is for seven weeks but hopefully we might get some more next year all going well,' said Orla. 'Schools that are also interested in getting involved can also provide some funding themselves.'

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