Deb Millar runs a Forest School project in Somerset. Here she explains how taking children out of the classroom and into local woodlands can bring history lessons to life:-
Having worked in experimental archaeology I know that hands on experiences can inspire children to take an interest in the past in a way that no amount of study can. However not everyone has access to a castle or reconstructed medieval village. I wanted to find a way for more schools and children to participate in this simple approach to learning through doing.
Through the Forest Education Initiative, we secured a grant for a pilot project encouraging schools and home educated children to use local woods for living history.
We decided to focus on the Vikings because it is a popular topic for KS2 and unless you live near York (we live in Somerset) there is very little to support a study of this topic. We ran several ‘Viking Days’ in woods and in school grounds throughout last year. We would arrive in Viking dress having given children instructions beforehand on how to compile a Viking costume. (As you can see from the photo some didn’t believe me when I said that the Vikings did not have horns on their helmets!) We always had a bag of spare costumes for those who hadn’t got their own.
Every child had developed a ‘story’ beforehand with friends about where they had come from, what had happened on their journey and what skills they had.
We handed out authentic Norse names for everyone and discussed how many simple words we still use today. We cooked barley bread on an open fire and ate it with stinging nettles (surprisingly popular) on wooden plates whilst some children told us sagas they knew. We dyed cloth with sloes and elderberries gathered in the woods. We had a simple peg loom for weaving. We dug clay and made pots, decorating them with runes from the Futhark. We made simple baskets.
The ‘Viking Days’ were flexibly devised according to the group’s requirements. Sessions felt more exciting held in a wood but there was also merit in the sessions held in school grounds. Teachers were wary of taking learning outside but could see the benefits. At one school the log circle remained and ‘Vikings’ became a popular play time game. On a return visit 4 months after our session, older children were still getting younger ones to make a pretend fire and look out for Saxons.
I am still writing up the results of our project but I know I won’t have to plough through feedback forms to know it was a success. Children begged us to do more, they wanted to research for themselves afterwards. Teaching staff were all positive and it also raised their awareness of the forest school ethos.
There is no doubt that woods are a wonderful place for pretending.