Friday, 25 October 2013

Forest School Conference 2013

Please note that all images of or by children on this page involve only my own children and were not taken in school settings or during school activities. This limitation is due to compliance with the data protection act.

 Derwent hill centre is owned by Sunderland county council way over in the east of up north, it nestles in lovely valley just over the water from Keswick and is a wonderful place to hold a conference. They have a good list of resources and publications about outdoor learning here.

My background includes a lot of experience of working outdoors with children and working with digital technologies in the classroom and in a wide range of online learning contexts. Like many teachers most of what I have done has been purposefully linked to curriculum such as; taking digital cameras into the field and using them to catalyse the learning experience by placing the children in the role of scientific explorer / journalist and giving them tools they can use to capture and share their experience. The current set of mobile or portable technologies evolved rapidly, we have gone from  from a field notebook and pencil to increasingly high definition digital cameras and today apps such as iRecord Ladybird that enable anyone, who has a smart phone or tablet, to identify an insect by photographing it and rapidly comparing it with a database. They can learn about it from the stored information and then upload a photo of the sighting that automatically has location data attached to it. Somewhere in the depths of a university a new dot appears on a map and the scientific data has expanded.

There are many similar initiatives including We have moved a long way from scribbling on soggy or muddy notepads. The potential to use portable technologies to contribute to real world research in the field may offer benefits in terms of increasing motivation to learn, developing ICT skills, developing curriculum knowledge and learning how to capture and present information.

Most children and adults appreciate a record of special moments. Last year my boys were a few hundred meters off shore having kayaked out to a reef. We didn't have a waterproof camera so our only camera was back on the beach when they encountered a friendly cormorant that was more than happy to dry it wings a meter or so from where they were standing. Fortunately it stayed for ages and I was able to paddle back and get our camera to capture the moment but the boys wished they had a waterproof camera especially when it let them follow it underwater. In outdoor settings there are many opportunities to have special moments, unfortunately mobile devices are not cheap and are fragile so they are often not allowed on field trips or in local outdoor learning situations. It is often the teacher or other staff / helpers who are tasked with recording a school trip, that is better than no record but teachers are often very preoccupied with ensuring all goes well and the capturing of a record may be sporadic. A tough shockproof and waterproof camera would make it feasible for children to capture special moments and a record of good times.

During one of the presentations we were reminded that a child has a different perspective to an adult, that was the case here - this spider was a speck in the distance to adults but a 6 year old spotted it straight away and took a 'Deadly 60' photo.

The next two added to the deadly 60 album and really helped embed the difference between two snakes, first a baby grass snake...

...then a more dangerous viper. The vague banding on the grass snake had been enough to cause some uncertainty but seeing the two images together clarified the differences. Both images were captured by the same child but were taken several months apart.

The outdoors is an inspiration place for Art, the next two images both were the result of setting out to create an image that could be used for a celebration card. A small selection of baubles were the only brought items, seaweed, shells and cuttlefish bits made up most of the tree.

A very simple way of bringing some outdoors into the  indoors was a birthday message made from daffodil petals. It was too windy outside to get the petals to settle so they were brought indoors.

Talking to people at the Forest Schools conference it seemed there was a wide range of contexts in which people used technologies outdoors. I felt like there were sensible overlaps such as a "Forest School" area in school grounds also being used for other curriculum related activities. The notion of a "Wholegrain full flavour" or "Full fat" Forest Schools approach and other more diluted versions was raised in a workshop and was an ongoing discussion focus. As a newcomer to the FSA and its work I was interested in whether use of portable technologies would be seen as intrusive into the ethos, whether they add to the flavour or detract from it. Everyone was so friendly and talkative at the conference, being in an outdoor setting and talking to people about their philosophies and experiences provided some great insights into what were often imaginative and interesting approaches to enhancing learning.

It is clear there is a place and a need for increasing connectedness with the outdoors, as I write this another study has appeared. The RSPB study concludes that only 21% of children could be viewed as being "connected to nature". Linked from that article is a page where Yale have published a useful collection of related articles and other documents, it covers outdoor settings as diverse as recess play areas, residential trips, sport, gardens and topics such as impact on cognitive development, assessment scores, behaviour, well-being.

The Council for Learning Outside the classroom have also a collection of useful links including a recent Ofsted report: Learning outside the classroom: How far should you go?

Photography discussion.

The cost of cameras has dropped considerably over the last 10 years but fragility remains an issue with many models. Tough cameras (shock and water resistant) are available but do cost more than basic cameras such as flipcams. One delegate confirmed that they are a good investment and reduce the worry about breakage considerably.  The camera shown below belongs to my daughter (aged 27) it has tumbled 5 meters down a steep mountain slope, been dropped on the floor and in mud several times, been used on many snorkeling adventures, snowboarding trips etc. and has outlasted three other non-tough digital cameras that were only used by adults and were looked after carefully. There is a compromise in that the zoom and resolution is not as high as similarly priced standard cameras but for most purposes they are absolutely fine. The issue of image stabilisation was raised, young hands do not always stay steady, one of the problems with lower quality cameras is blurry images that are often caused by relatively low shutter speeds and a little bit of wobbling by the photographer. A camera with built in image stabilisation can reduce this significantly.

Tough cases are available for mobile phones as this video illustrates:

The fragility of technologies can be mediated without a huge investment, it is clear that many portable technologies are suitable for outdoor use by children but should we be using them in Forest Schools?

The legal side...
The value of capturing photographs was not disputed, there were issues about what is captured. The data protection act requires organisations to protect personal information, this includes photographs and video. The base-line appears to be that no publicly available information should enable a child to be identified, if a photo is published on a school server it must not be linked to other information (names, addresses, etc) about those appearing in it. There should be an organisational policy that explains acceptable usage. Parents should be consulted as to whether that are happy for their children to be photographed and for the images to be made publicly available. Even with parental permission any images must not include or be linked to other data, including meta-data that might not be overtly visible, that could lead to the child being identified. There is also an obligation for data to be stored safely and securely. ICO advise:
"Do not disclose personal information(including photos) on a website without the individual pupil, member of staff or governor being aware. We recommend you get consent before publishing photographs on a website."  

The data protection act does not cover images captured for personal or recreational use:
"Images captured by individuals for personal or recreational purposes, such as with a mobile phone, digital camera or camcorder, are exempt from the DPA. If a parent makes a video of their child in a school play for their own family use, this is not covered by data protection law. A school may still have a policy restricting the taking of photographs or other images (for instance, for child protection reasons or to prevent disturbance), but we stress that this is not a data protection issue."

The interpretation of this into school policy varies, it is common for schools to include a clause that permits photos to be taken but not to be shared publicly in places such as Facebook, YouTube, Blogs or other open access spaces.

Please note do not take my guidelines, above and below this statement, as having any official status these are my own interpretation of the act - you must make your own interpretations and act lawfully in accordance with specific wording of the original policy and any policies in use by your organisation. 

In my opinion the taking of images by staff or pupils with the intent of sharing them via a school server or any other server that would provide public access should be done in-line with parental permissions, the data protection act and organisational policy. It appears that data collected for personal use can be captured but should not be shared. This would seem to enable children to use their own devices, or those owned by an organisation, to capture images that are to be used on a secure password protected server or for personal use. The grey area is whether to restrict the capture of images of children for personal use when they, or their parents, have asked the setting not to publish such images. Obviously in group settings unintentional capture of such a child can occur, given the data protection act also requires data to be stored securely some settings will delete such images as soon as they are taken. Schools are often risk averse, many schools protect children and staff by locking personal phones or cameras away during the school day. It was pointed out that the risk of inappropriate images being captured is extremely low and should be considered in the light of other more tangible risks such as walking children to an off site event or carrying them in a minibus. The risk was also compared to activities in a Forest Schools situation where children learn to use tools such as; knives, axes, hammers and learn how to light fires and cook on them. Be the risk in the physical world or the virtual there is a need to learn how to handle risk, locking technologies away does not develop good skills in that respect.

The concept of locking away mobile technologies is in stark contrast to the attitude of many who are pushing new frontiers of learning. In this video on child led learning Stephen Heppell mentions getting mobile devices out on display on the desk rather than being locked away. The development of an ethos of mutuality, collegiality and trust is critical to enabling this kind of approach.

Cameras are fairly safe in respect of sharing images, however; mobile phones or tablets enable images to be shared within seconds of being captured. Their use could then be seen as higher risk as there is a reliance on trusting children not to share images publicly and this can be difficult as children around the age of 9-12 are often part of social networks and very keen to show their friends what they have been doing. The Forest Schools ethos seems to be one of developing mutual respect and trust, this is particularly important in outdoor activities where working as a team is important. Where image capture technologies are used it would make sense to overtly extend this to encompass mutual respect in relation to the capture and sharing of images.

It seems that there are good reasons for enabling staff or children to take photographs of their Forest School experiences for a range of purposes. It also seems that the Forest Schools ethos is useful for developing mutual respect and that could feed on into promoting respect back in the normal school setting. The question I did not manage to resolve is whether technologies are likely to disrupt the Forest School approach. Some practitioners clearly felt that technology is just an integral part of every day life and would not be disruptive. Others did not feel technology was something they would purposefully use although several I talked too reported that they did not mind being photographed by children when in the midst of storytelling, demonstrating forest skills or any other part of their day. I did not meet anyone who told me they would rather not have technologies in use during their sessions. In some outdoor learning activities the technology may drive the activity - capturing and recording wildlife or taking a daily record of plant growth to make a stop-gap animation. In Forest Schools the role appears to generally be secondary to the main activities, i.e. that of recording good memories.

The issue of convincing senior management of the value of Forest Schools was mentioned and photographs were seen as playing a valuable role in providing evidence of what was done and what was achieved. A photograph of mud sculptures shows which Art learning outcomes have been met, photos of children helping and supporting each other relate to well-being, trust and feeling safe at school, video of campfire singing or playing percussion on 'found instruments' (sticks, stones, pine cones etc.)  shows where the music curriculum is being implemented and can link to the science curriculum.

There can be issues with video files can be large and this can be an issue on some school servers where space is a priority. They  may often be only temporarily saved then deleted later by technicians to free up space. The price of storage has plummeted over recent years, this shouldn't really be a pressing issue for a well functioning ICT service.

Another use of cameras that was mentioned is the capture of images via web-cam, these are permanently connected to the internet and may stream live video or a series of still images captured every 30 seconds or even a few hours apart. For a relatively small investment schools can set up nesting boxes that are monitored by web-cam, this can provide a lot of interest for children and gives them the feel of being part of something that they might see on TV. This one aspect that residential centres offering Forest Schools experiences might consider as it could be of interest both before and after visits to the centre and would not disrupt the Forest School day in any way.

Audio recordings.
There are several variations on fairly inexpensive products that are very similar, often called sound tins or talking buttons, these are small devices that offer the opportunity to record short snippets of audio this may vary between a few seconds and up to around a minute, 40 seconds is fairly typical. They can be used by children or adults to record a little of the outdoors and bring it indoors, the recording can then be locked so it can't easily be over written and they can be stuck to a wall display or many other surfaces. Children of all ages can easily record the gurgling of a stream, duck quacks, Mooos, Baaaahs, birdsong, rushing wind, rustling leaves, the crackle of a campfire etc. This can then be brought indoors and used to enhance a record of a trip or as sound effects during story reading, mixed into a music track and many more creative approaches to using audio. They can also be taken outdoors, children could pre-record an audio clue to leave as guidance for others to help them find their way around an outdoor trail or to highlight things to look at at particular spots - "Stand with your back to this button; somewhere in front of you is a nest made by forest ants - find it and take a photo without disturbing the nest or getting bitten." 

Many digital cameras have the capacity to record good quality audio, iPods, iPads and a host of other portable devices do the same. This opens up the possibility of capturing and using longer soundscapes although the interfaces are less intuitive and may be not so suitable for younger learners. Soundscapes can be excellent for prompting recall and are particularly useful for visually challenged children.

The data protection act seems to be less concerned with audio data although care should be taken as far as any pupil's names being mentioned if audio is to be posted on a public site.

Several delegates mentioned using walkie talkies in outdoor learning / Forest School sessions. These are relatively inexpensive and do not link to public networks in the way that mobile phones do. This enables pupils to explore communication at a distance without staff needing to worry overly about inappropriate usage.

Digital microscopes were also mentioned as a useful tool. These can be purchased for £45 + for a reasonably decent USB unit and can open up a new perspective on the outdoor micro world. It can take a fair bit of patience to capture good images but they can be very useful field devices or for examining specimens indoors. I did not hear anyone promoting their use as part of a pure Forest Schools experience.

The fact that many Forest School activities focus on pure nature and do not involve 'electricity' was discussed. This really is the pure undiluted approach and there are many arguments in favour of electricity free days. it is not unusual for children on residential visits of any sort to have no access to TV. Few actually feel downhearted about that once they are on the trip and many will learn that TV is not an essential as far as having a good time goes. An electricity free experience takes that a step further and I can very much see the value in that even as far as walking in the dark without torches. Activities like that really bring children into a very different world to their normal one. Managing to survive with minimal help from technologies could well be 'character building' and develop self reliance skills.

For many years schools lead the way with technologies, home ownership of a range of mobile devices is now common, use of iPads, games consoles and smart phones starts at a very young age and today many schools struggle to keep up. The rate of development of technologies is not slowing, there is a progress towards more ambient and un-intrusive technologies  wearable devices and gesture control are arriving it seems inevitable that children will be subject to increasing immersion in technologies both at school and at home. Against that backdrop I think there is a clear case for a wholegrain Forest School core to continue to provide an oasis in a sea of technology. I am also torn between that and my intrinsic instinct to make good use of technologies and the opportunities they offer.

My conclusion during the conference was that 'enhancing well-being' was the main goal of everyone I talked too. Many of the accounts of activities I heard were about children deeply immersed in what they are doing, stress levels lowering, intense focus on task, bravery overcoming fear, smiles appearing and targets being achieved. Cziksentmihalyi describes this immersive experience as a state of flow where engagement with task is so deep and all consuming that a sense of timelessness might be experienced. He also suggests that this state of being is in itself intrinsically rewarding and that flow could be seen as an optimal learning state. The ideas emerged from a background in climbing, many lovers of sports such as climbing, surfing cycling, diving etc. are very familiar with feeling 'in tune', 'on fire', 'stoked', musicians, singers, storytellers and all sorts of people light up when they are in the flow of the moment. Technologies are far from being an essential element of Forest School but they can be used to good effect without causing disruption to core values and aims. In my experience flow can be achieved easily when children use well designed technologies for activities they feel are important, it can also be achieved just as easily in non-electricity days deep in the woods. 

To an outsider Forest Schools could initially seem like a lightweight add on, a 'lets all just play and have fun and make friends' holiday from real learning. The reality is that Forest school practitioners are highly skilled at using carefully crafted activities that can help change who young people are. It seems to be working very well as it stands and I am not going to advocate any hasty changes to implant technologies into the approach. I would still endorse their use particularly for retaining a record of the experience. I have a single faded and folded photograph that is all that survives of a junior school YHA trip to Once Brewed youth hostel in the early 70s, it is not a good photo, a few kids and a student teacher as small toy sized figures playing Frisbee in a field. When I look at it I smell the smell of the field, the sound of the river, the hurt of a hailstorm, a walk above Crag Lough in slanting sleet, games of chess in the evening, the sounds of dishes being washed, children's laughter, the tramp of boots along a wall tramped by Romans and much more comes flooding back. I spent a lot of time out doors and visited that area many times with parents and friends but that photo is so valuable in bringing back that particular moment. I wonder whether the value of such things to children being brought into the forest, perhaps from an inner city for the first time, is well worth the slight compromise of letting a little bit of electricity into a Forest Schools day.

The video below reminds me so much of values and experiences many UK children are somewhat removed from, it traces the life of a djembe drum from the cutting down of the tree to the use in bringing the village together in celebration. About mid way through there is a lovely vignette of children playing vibrant rhythms on junk instruments. It shows elements that bond a community particularly the whole community event in the closing minutes. If Forest Schools practitioners can help children touch that spirit of communal effort and joy through days of adventure and a few hours of singing round a camp site the children are very likely to return to school as different people - that is an outcome that many traditional lessons can not claim.