If you go down to the woods today…


FOREST FUN Scenes from Róisín Geddes’s forest school in Carnacon.

Bringing the great outdoors into education

Oisín McGovern

In a matter of weeks, Burriscarra NS in Carnacon village will open its very own forest school – and its young attendees (aged three to five years) will be doing all their learning outdoors, surrounded by nature and fresh air.
The national school has just hosted a successful forest-school summer camp at the back of the community centre, and now it is destined to become a breakfast and afterschool club – something that has been badly needed in Carnacon for many years.
“Forest school is all about being outside with nature, looking at nature, using nature as part of the learning… There are no walls, there is no ceiling,” explains founder Róisín Geddes, who has already established the Ros Na Réaltóg forest school at Crimlin NS in Ross West, Castlebar.
And Róisín is not exaggerating when she says that forest schools are ‘totally outdoors’. On wet days, class continues in an outdoor shelter, where the children will be living proof of the  old Scandinavian saying, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes’.
The young pupils engage in a wide range of activities that teach them about nature, biodiversity, recycling and the life cycle of plants. Growing their own vegetables, foraging for mushrooms, building dens and making nettle soup are just some of the activities the kids can get up to in this most natural of settings. Rather than obsessing with hygiene and sanitiser, the dirt and muckiness of the natural environment is actively embraced.
“They’re getting a huge combination of sport, art, musicality, learning about different kinds of bugs and creatures, learning about what a habitat is and what a life cycle is, learning about tropical fruits of the world, how that differs with Ireland – how we harvest food and how we grow food,” Roisín says.
Located right in the heart of rural Ireland, the school couldn’t be better suited to this al-fresco experience. Too often, being located in a rural area can be portrayed as a hindrance to a school due to a lack of transport links and childcare. In pioneering the forest school model, Crimlin NS and Burriscarra NS are very much using their rural location to their advantage.
In Carnacon, the best of the great outdoors is right at your doorstep. Surrounded by greenery and farmland, the school has its very own forest down the road in the historic Moorehall Woods, where there is currently talk of setting up a community garden.
Indeed, Róisín believes that Moorehall can be an educational tool not just for the children in the forest school, but the entire area. “Really this kind of approach to education is not just about early years, this is for all learners. [Learning about our natural surroundings] benefits everybody in the community,” she says.
Explaining that the forest school at Ros na Réaltóg in Ross is installing a sensory garden, a facility commonly used by children with autism, Róisín says that the forest school philosophy allows learners of all levels to develop a kind of resilience and resourcefulness that the mainstream educational system does not foster.
“It helps children build confidence; they feel safe in [the outdoors], and they feel happier in themselves. Learning can happen much more practically and at their own pace,” Róisín says.
“It will really put Carnacon at the centre of change for education. I think that’s a wonderful thing for the community to be part of.”