Enabling Environments

Forest school ideas – Physical development activities to try

  • Forest school ideas – Physical development activities to try

Jane Blant showcases creative forest school ideas that will support the physical development of children in your care…  

At the heart of our practice at Alfreton Nursery School in Derbyshire is freedom for physical expression to enable every child to reach their full holistic potential.

Physical development is a prime area of the Early Years Foundation Stage (2022). It states that ‘there has been considerable concern over the last few years, about an increase in children’s sedentary behaviour and a reduction in their physical activity’.

We take every opportunity to enhance and enrich the physical development of every child in our care. We’ve implemented two different programmes: Busy Bees and Earth Elves. We aim to immerse our children in the magic of our onsite woodland. The idea is that they:

  • have fun connecting with nature
  • build their confidence to take small risks
  • physically challenge themselves
  • gradually develop resilience

We strive to make a positively profound impact on each child’s emotional wellbeing and self-regulation. This is significantly influenced by unique physical opportunities.

Both sessions take place in our woodland. This boasts a wonderful array of native British trees, willow structures and a tool station. There’s also a log circle, bug hotels and a mud pie kitchen.

The scope for supporting physical development is immense. Children have the opportunity to access a wide range of woodland apparatus, including:

  • rope swings
  • small ladders
  • cargo net
  • oodles of natural loose parts

A forest school leader fully risk assesses the woodland before children enter the space. 

Forest school ideas for children with SEND

Our Busy Bees group enables children with a health condition or impairment, who require additional support, to embrace the elements and magic of the woodland.

We use an enclosed space that offers ideal experiences for simple physical challenges. One of the forest school ideas we start with is showing children an object of reference in the form of a soft toy. We do this while preparing for the session. We also give children the opportunity to wear a bee-themed headband if they want to.

Leaders allocate lots of time to child-led play. This includes playing on the hammock and the hammock swing. This is fully supported by staff who are skilled and experienced in moving and handling.

The children also love to have a turn on the cargo net. This is a wonderful opportunity for stretching core tummy muscles. All our forest school ideas fully support children’s schemas.

“Schemas are repeated patterns of behaviour which, over time and with lots of repetition and exposure develop into ideas and concepts” – Muddy Puddle Club

The trajectory schema, which involves how things move through the air, is a prime example that we observe during play. Forest school ideas include puddle jumping and throwing leaf/mud balls. Children can also explore and interrupt water as it runs from a water butt tap or gutters.

Observing our Busy Bees challenging their physicality and working through their schemas is a joy to behold! 

Simple forest school ideas

We plan very simple games in advance. For example, we might ask children to take turns choosing a photograph or toy of a woodland creature from a sensory bag.

We then encourage children to imitate the action of their selected animal. They also use the makaton sign to support their language and communication.

We also use a communication board with velcro to support children’s choices relating to the permanent woodland apparatus. 

The inclusive environment and the activities we offer all serve to support every child and their individual physical needs.

“Practitioners working with children with SEND acknowledge and value each child, emphasising what they can do through a strengths-based approach on disability” – Early Education (2021)

Earth Elves 

Children attending our nursery school in their first and second term are able to attend Earth Elves sessions with Nicola, our level 3 trained forest school leader.

This is a taster session for a group of eight children. It takes place three times during the day, to offer all children in these terms an introduction to forest school.

The activity usually takes place for 45 minutes in ‘Granny Greenwood’s woodland’ on a weekly basis. Prior to the activities, we encourage children to develop their self-help skills by attempting to put on their own waterproofs and wellies and, of course, their Earth Elf hats!  

Physical activity in the woodland 

We use two puppets, Elm and Elderflower, as objects of reference. We use them to get children children interested in attending and engaging with the Earth Elves programme.

Once the Earth Elves are ready to enter the woodland, they participate in a very simple action game. For example, we give them simple clues to identify a woodland animal. We then connect this with the appropriate movement (birds flying, frogs jumping, rabbits hopping, etc).

Such a simple and fun activity can really motivate children to become animated. They use their whole body to express movement.

To support our Earth Elves’ listening and attention skills, they’ve learnt that when an adult calls “cuckoo”, this is the signal for them to all come back together.

Another popular and simple activity is to play hide and seek with pictures or toys of birds or woodland animals. The children have a wonderful time exploring the woodland. They’re challenged to recover the hidden objects from high up in the trees or camouflaged amongst the hedgerow.

It’s important to note that we support children who may not be able to sustain a simple focus to follow their individual point of interest and/or exploration of the woodland and learn at their own pace.

Once the adult-led activity comes to an end, we allocate time for free exploration. This might be in the mud pie kitchen, accessing the obstacles or undertaking physical challenges around the woodland.

“By creating games and providing opportunities for play both indoors and outdoors, adults can support children to develop their core strength, stability, balance, spatial awareness, co-ordination and agility” – Department for Education (2021)

At the close of the session, we give children a huge amount of praise and celebrate their participation in the Earth Elves intervention.  

Pond rules

A new life experience for many of our children is to observe the beauty of a woodland pond. Our simple pond rules to keep the children safe are based on the chant from the ‘Bear Hunt’ story: “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it, and we can’t go through it!”. We support children to sit on logs or lie on their tummies to observe the pond life. 

Following on from their Busy Bees and Earth Elves experiences, many children move into our ‘blue’ and ‘red’ teams to continue their nursery forest school journey.  

Observation and assessment 

As a nursery school we endeavour to implement the Ferre Laevers Assessment tool. This measures emotional wellbeing and involvement on a five-point scale.

Ferre Laevers suggests that “a child with high emotional wellbeing can be observed as being at ease, free to act spontaneously and show a degree of self-confidence” (Learning Journals).

Staff observations of the children at play are a major contribution towards improving developmental progress.  Making the connection in meeting both the emotional need and physical needs is paramount.

Ultimately this approach is conducive to and hugely impactful in ensuring that every child succeeds. We record and share observations of Earth Elves and Busy Bees sessions with parents and carers in children’s online learning journals.

We try to give children the opportunity to embrace the natural environment while indulging in sensory and practical experiences. Our sensitive and skilled practitioners mindfully adapt to each child’s preferred learning style and needs.

Igniting emotional wellbeing, awe and wonder, and embracing the elements of our outdoor environment, is pivotal to motivating children to engage in physical activity.

Jane Blant is a higher level teaching assistant at Alfreton Nursery School in Derbyshire.