Going out on a limb

Life lessons from Forest Day

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O'Connell Public students Sid Butler, Abbie Burns, Astrid Gavey and Elliot Schubert-Wong with principal Trish Forsyth. Photo: Karen Bailey

O'Connell Public students Sid Butler, Abbie Burns, Astrid Gavey and Elliot Schubert-Wong with principal Trish Forsyth. Photo: Karen Bailey

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At O'Connell Public, nestled on the side of a hill above the meandering Fish River, students learn a bit differently.

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CHILDREN learn better by doing, rather than completing all their lessons in the classroom: that's the philosophy behind an "out of the box" technique being implemented by O'Connell Public School on the state's Central Tablelands.

School principal Trish Forsyth is the driving force behind the strategy, which at its core involves taking the whole school on regular "excursions" to a nearby forest on a rural property for the day.

O'Connell Public is a typical bush school nestled on the side of a hill above the meandering Fish River.

Currently about 76 students attend the school, which ranges from Kindergarten to Year 6.

Trish grew up exploring parts of the forest used for the excursions as a child, was a student at O'Connell Public School and after years teaching in a number of city and country schools, ended up back in the same district where she started.

Along the way, she became passionate about exploring new ways to engage children in learning, particularly those students who traditionally don't excel under the current way of teaching in classrooms.

As a young teacher she led an ambitious excursion that taught her an important lesson.

As the principal at the Southern Tablelands village of Rugby, having only recently begun her teaching career, she took the entire school and the community on a 10-day trip through the centre of Australia.

"We had a bus and we had everyone from the postmistress to the local shop owner, a couple of shearers," she said.

"And in those 10 days, I saw just how much kids learn through doing. I could never have taught them as much about Central Australia in years of study back at school.

"Probably from then on, I've always been a big advocate for excursions and getting the kids out and about and experiencing things."

Fast forward to a couple of years ago and Trish, now the principal of O'Connell Public, was doing a unit on cubby building with the Kindergarten to Year 2 students when she realised that a number of them had never built one themselves.

In the past, most of the students were from rural properties, however over time this has shifted so that most of the students come from the surrounding towns and villages.

And reflecting on that fact, she said many students spend so much free time on their devices, they don't get outside to play in the way kids did in the past.

"I was quite taken aback by that, so I planned a day where we would take them out into the forest and they could just spend the day building cubbies," she said.

"We weren't entirely sure how long it would keep their interest or how the day would go, but what we found was the kids worked for hours and there wasn't a cross word.

"There were children that don't do so well in the conventional classroom who were just in their element [in the forest] and had strengths that the other kids could see - whether it was in their design or their physical strength.

"The kids just had a ball."

Trish said during the Forest Days, as they have become known, the children unwittingly use maths, science and even English while "playing".

"We might say 'find a stick as long as your arm' and that's using maths as the children search for a stick that measures up to the required length," she said.

"Last Forest Day we set up an area for the children to make mud pies, but they got much more creative and built an afternoon tea set for fairies."

O'Connell Public principal Trish Forsyth is a believer in kids learning through doing.

O'Connell Public principal Trish Forsyth is a believer in kids learning through doing.

Trish said the day gets the students' imaginations firing and as a result they blossom during the day and that enthusiasm and confidence flows back into the classroom.

O'Connell Public now holds a Forest Day, for all students, one day a term.

"Parents pick up and drop off at the forest and the school day, essentially, occurs in the forest," Trish said.

"The kids can go cubby building, bike riding, bushwalking. We made mud huts one day with a parent volunteer. They did leatherwork with another volunteer.

"And they [students] get to choose - there's no assigning them groups or activities; it's all student-led.

"Kids just blossom when you give them those experiences."

Trish hopes to expand her knowledge of using the forest for education after being named as a recipient of a $10,000 First State Super Teachers Scholarship from the not-for-profit Public Education Foundation.

She plans to complete a week-long Forest Leader Certificate course and hopes, when coronavirus travel bans lift, to go overseas to one of the well-established forest schools in the UK or Europe.

"The [scholarship] money obviously won't pay for that entirely, but it will at least supplement and help me get over there," she said.

The O'Connell Public Forest Days are held in the bushland on Yarrabin, a family-run horse, sheep and cattle property that also offers accommodation.

Trish, who grew up at Yarrabin, said it was thanks to the current owners that the forest days could be held.

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