Constructive Outdoor Play – A parent’s perspective

Larisa Strickland is a governor at I CAN’s Meath School and is also a parent of a pupil, Matthew (8). She recently observed a Forest School session in action. We explore with her the importance of constructive outdoor play and how it has affected Matthew’s learning and development.

Tell us about Matthew.

“Matthew started at the Meath School when he was five years old. Matthew is non-verbal; he understands very well, but the only speech he can manage is “mumma and poppa” and unintelligible growls and sounds. He has been that way since he was three years old.

 “As you can imagine, Matthew was really struggling in mainstream education – he was at school three days a week with support and then two days a week in a special needs school, which wasn’t working as the two schools weren’t sharing information and the support he was receiving was disjointed.

“Following a lengthy and stressful battle with the local authority, Matthew was finally placed at Meath, where he has never been happier. We have seen his abilities develop, as well as confidence and desire for independence grow. Week on week, we have noticed a huge difference in what he is able to do.

“One thing that has also changed has been Matthew’s enjoyment and appreciation of the outdoors. We think this desire to be outside has come from his experiences of the Forest School.”

The Forest School takes each class through six sessions of constructive outdoor play a couple of times a year. The periods run though-out a term for one lesson a week, while the other classes do PE. It’s an integral part of the school syllabus.


What is your impression of the Forest School?

“I was fortunate enough to be able to observe one of the Forest School sessions earlier this year, and it was a real eye-opener, especially because I knew some of the children who had started at Meath at the same time as Matthew. So I was able to observe them knowing their previous abilities.

“Their speech and imaginative play really blew me away. One boy in particular, who was in the same class as Matthew, took me through his imaginary car wash.

“My wellies were muddy as it had been raining, and so he guided me through each phase, step-by-step, of the car-wash to have them cleaned and blow-dried. In each phase of the wash he was going into depth about the process, and how it was cleaning my boots. He used leaves, sticks and a small hole which he had dug out to set the scene.

What was incredible is that only a couple of years ago, I remember this boy as someone who couldn’t string a sentence together, and now he was able to and use language to confidently give me commands as he guided me through his imaginary car-wash. It was really astonishing to see. “Now you have finished washing, you must come and blow-dry your boots.” It gave me so much hope, not only for Matthew, but for other children as well.”


What else did you observe?

“It was a mild afternoon in February, after lunch. The children were so overjoyed to be outside. The area of play was divided into sections. In one area the children were learning to build a bonfire, where a Forest School facilitator was instructing how to correctly and safely create a fire. The children were listening patiently and following directions.

“One area was a “mud kitchen”, a section where children worked together to make and bake mud pies. It was messy, of course, but it was constructive. The children were consciously using pots and pans to put mud into, asking me what flavour I wanted and then pretending to collect the money I paid for it. They were very imaginative at applying the area they were in to their real world experiences. These opportunities are so important for children, especially impressive as there weren’t any adults instructing them on how to run the kitchen. It really was amazing.”


You said Matthew has developed a love of the outdoors now, what changes have you noticed?

“Matthew is now a lot keener to go on walks, to go and play with the ducks near the river. Recently he’s been signing that he wants to go out for picnics. At the Forest School they do sit and interact on outdoor mats, I think he enjoyed that and wants to recreate the same experiences at home. When the weather is better he wants to be outside and really enjoys constructive play, particularly more independently than before.

“For the first few years of Matthew’s life we were so worried about him and his development, especially without a diagnosis. Now we are confident he is in the right academic placement with the correct communication support he needs.

“The Meath School is the best possible environment for Matthew, and that is backed up by assessments by the educational psychologist and at the Bill Harrison centre. He’s very content and we know he feels very safe and secure there. His face lights up there every time he arrives at school, a testament to the importance of a secure and supportive environment and the amazing work by Janet Dunn and the team.”