Getting Started: Setting up your Woodland Site
Creating an outdoor learning area on your school site out of an unused corner of trees can seem a daunting prospect but here's what we've learned through setting up numerous sites in the last 20 years of RFS Teaching Trees.
Having a focal point to call children or adults back to is really useful on a site you’re going to be using regularly.
The seating area here was kindly created by the Forestry Team at Chatsworth for a local school who wanted to able to use local woods for Outdoor Learning. One sycamore was felled in the centre of the area to create space and to give these handy logs for the children to sit on. Seating like this doesn’t need to cost anything or any specific skills to install although if you’re on a slope you’ll want to peg them into the ground to stop them rolling away.
Where possible, we recommend making a log circle at least 4m wide with a couple of spaces around the circle for easy entrance and exit without the need to climb over anything. A circle this size will comfortably seat a class of 30 without everyone being on top of each other and allows space in the middle for activities and demonstrations.
Pathways might seem a contradiction when you’re wanting children to be free to explore your woodland area but they’re essential to sustainable management of your site as well as inclusive access. They allow you to protect vulnerable areas or habitats, reduce compaction around trees and make the site far more accessible to those with restricted mobility.
A layer of wood chip on paths or in seating areas is one of our top recommendations for keeping your site relatively mud free, reducing soil erosion and impact on the ecosystem.
Often available for free from a local tree surgeon, spread the wood chip at least 3 inches deep to create a useable path which will compress with use.
Shown here at one of our partner sites, the woodchip has been used to good effect to guide the children away from sensitive areas and further down into the site for their exploration.
Path edging is a simple but effective way of protecting sensitive areas of your woodland. A bit like den building but flatter (!), we’ve found that children love the responsibility of collecting logs to mark off sensitive areas and decide for themselves where they need to go.
The edging here has been used to good effect to guide children away from the emerging bluebells and we’ve also used this on a number of other sites to mark out areas of new planting and reduce the chance of children running into and damaging new trees.
We often get asked for advice from schools wanting to build outdoor classrooms or purchase permanent shelters for their site. If you have a substantial budget then they can be useful but there are many things to consider and they generally aren’t essential.
Getting outdoors all year round is made more possible with a good outdoor classroom but consider what weather you are trying to protect yourself from. A typical outdoor classroom with a roof, benches around the edge and a wooden floor can be great shade in summer if your site is quite open but less useful in wet and windy weather when the rain will come in through the sides of the shelter onto the backs of the people sat on the benches. If you do decide to go for one, consider the prevailing wind direction on your site. You may want to have at least one wall completely solid to keep the rain out or to include fast growing plants in your plan which will provide a degree of a screen around the sides.
During rainy spells a wooden floor can become hazardously slippy so you might find that saving money and putting a shelter straight onto an earth floor actually means that you get more use out of it. If you’re worried about mud then a regular application of bark chip can help keep an area in use.
Substantially cheaper than an outdoor classroom but requiring a little time to establish and more maintenance, a willow dome can be a stunning way of establishing shelter on your site. We’ve worked with settings who have created willow domes from as little as £35 that could comfortably seat 4 – 6 children for a living den. For bigger domes you might want to engage a professional to establish it for you but ask about their experience of creating these for settings that are similar to yours.
If you’re wanting to put up occassional tarpaulins then a rope ridge line between two trees can be a simple and effective solution. If you don’t feel confident to do this then join us for one of our Outdoor Learning Practitioner courses or find a training provider in your area.
Even the smallest of outdoor learning areas can benefit from hedging to screen off ugly fencing, reduce litter coming through from outside or to create a feeling of peace and tranquility in an area where you aren’t in full view of the school. Unless you have a substantial budget and can afford to buy more mature hedging plants then it might take a few years to establish a hedge but yo’ll be amazed at how fast they grow. The Woodland Trust support schools wanting to get established in their outdoor spaces with free hedgerow packs which will give you at least a small hedge within 5 years of planting. If you’re a school within one of the areas where Teaching Trees works then we’ll happily come and help you with planting projects but they’re also very easy to do yourself.
Becky is Learning and Outreach Manager for the RFS and delivers outdoor learning for schools across Staffordshire and Derbyshire as well as Practitioner Training across the Midlands and North of England.
She delivers Outdoor Learning Training for Practitioners at Level 2 and Level 3 as part of the Cambium Network as well as bespoke packages for individual settings.