CHILDREN in Castletownbere have been given the opportunity to learn in a completely new environment thanks to the Forest School initiative.
For two years, this unique educational programme was done with the backing of the former principal of Scoil an Chroí Ro Naofa, Anne McNally.
The Forest School skipped a year in 2020 due to the Covid crisis but the eight-week spring programme resumed this year with the support of the new principal Deirdre Lehane.
For the last six weeks, 24 children from third class have been attending the Forest School at Dunboy Woods, every Friday morning, and there’s still two more sessions to enjoy before the end of the school year.
Rita Berz, a trained leader from Switzerland who now lives in Castletownbere, established the local Forest School, but she draws on the support of Maureen Fitzpatrick of Eyeries, who is also trained in the Forest United methods, and is a member of the Irish Forest School Association.
The way it works is that the children are taken by the school bus to Dunboy where they engage in a self-learning process that allows them to reconnect with nature.
All of the participants have demonstrably grown in confidence and self-esteem through their experience of hands-on learning in a forest environment.
Such is their enthusiasm that they willingly sign up for an additional 90-minute Forest Club session, which takes place after school hours on Thursday afternoons.
The school setting in Dunboy is done with the permission of Coillte but at the after-school club, in a private wood, is a bit different because here children are taught rope skills, how to make fire using flint, and how to carve things out of wood.
The children learn about nature, ecosystems, habitats and the species that inhabit these places. They learn that everything is connected and dependent on each other – that they are a part of this and they can make a difference.
An important part of the process is that the children find out what they want to do. They have fun playing outdoors and feel themselves to be ‘a part of nature’ by climbing trees, building dens, playing with sticks, and running after each other.
The children are also encouraged to take calculated risks which boost their confidence and self-esteem.
‘What I love most about running the forest school,’ Rita told The Southern Star, ‘is that the children can be wild, dirty and reconnect to nature. Their experience in nature makes them happy.’
Kathrina O’Sullivan, the mother of Katie, spoke in glowing terms about the school. She said it allows her child to integrate with other children in a natural environment that is safe, well-structured and well organised.
‘She gets to learn skills that she wouldn’t be able to learn in a school environment,’ she said. ‘It allows her to become grounded after a day at school and it’s a place where she can download the pent-up energy she has accumulated during the week.’