Practical Skills for a Forest School Programme

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Are you taking the Level 3 Forest School Leader training? If so, you’ll be working through a Unit on practical skills for forest school and putting what you learn into a portfolio that showcases your understanding and application. In this article, I’ll share a forest school portfolio example so you can see the kinds of things that are expected for the unit on practical skills.

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One of the units in the training is the Forest School practical skills you need to carry out the delivery of your programme. In my course, it was Unit 3, but in many courses I’ve looked at online, practical skills comes in as Unit 2.

It doesn’t really matter what order they come in for your portfolio, and the exact name of your unit might be different, but it will definitely cover the same or similar topics. I completed my Level 3 portfolio in 2018 and below I share a shortened and edited version of what I submitted.

This is not offered for you to copy – plagiarism is both not necessary and not supportive of your development as a Forest School Leader. Instead, it’s just to give you some starting points about what kinds of things could be included when you write your own.

The Practical Skills for Forest School Unit

This unit of the forest school leader training has the following learning outcomes:

  1. Be able to apply a range of practical skills relevant to a forest school programme
  2. Know how to facilitate a range of practical skills relevant to a forest school in line with the forest school ethos and principles

That might not look like a lot, but there are loads of assessment criteria in this unit. Let’s look at each of those outcomes and what goes into them.

1. Apply a range of relevant practical skills

This unit is all about making sure you can do the skills, from creating a safe environment to using the tools of the trade. The assessment criteria for this unit are quite extensive. I’ve numbered them so you can more easily follow along below. You’ll be assessed on the following:

1.1 Select and use appropriate personal protective equipment and personal clothing for working in a range of situations at forest school

1.2 Safely check, clean, maintain and store a range of tools and ropes/cords

1.3 Safely use different hand tools for a range of applications

1.4 Tie and use a range of knots, selecting ropes/cords for different applications

1.5 Safely make a range of craft items using woodland materials

1.6 Erect temporary group shelters using tarps/natural materials

1.7 Safely site, build, light and manage a campfire suitable for purpose

1.8 Cook on a campfire using a range of methods

1.9 Extinguish a fire and leave the site safe.1.1 Select and use appropriate PPE and personal clothing

The easiest thing to do here is take a range of photos of the different PPE and clothing you wear on site and annotate them with an explanation of what they show.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

PPE for moving materials. I am wearing gardening gloves to protect my hands and my boots are safety boots with toe cap protection.

I went on to describe the PPE and clothing I have for summer, winter, wet weather, sawing and around the campfire.

1.2 Safely check, clean, maintain and store a range of tools and ropes/cords

This is another section where a picture paints a thousand words. Take some photos of your kit and write about how you know whether they are safe to use.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

This three strand rope has visible damage caused by chaffing and should no longer be used. On three strand rope, damage is easy to see. On braided climbing rope, I run the rope through my hands slowly to check for damage to the inner core.

I also shared photos of bow saws (one in good repair and one not, commenting on the differences) and how I maintain tarpaulins and ropes after they have been used. I also included photos of axe maintenance and my equipment for sharpening knives, with a mention of UK knife law. Finally, I took a photo of my maintenance log.

1.3 Safely use different hand tools for a range of applications

Again, photos are helpful here. Get a colleague or even one of the children to take photos of you at work! If your training provider would allow you to submit videos, that could also be helpful. Mine did not – everything had to be submitted as a paper hardcopy, so we couldn’t include video footage.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

In this photo I am splitting logs with a hatchet. I am kneeling to ensure the axe can’t hit my legs. The blade was knocked into the log with a mallet, then I used the weight of the log to provide the force needed to split it.

I also included photos of:

  • Using a folding saw
  • Using loppers
  • Using a bow saw to cut a dead birch branch
  • Using a crook knife to shape a bowl
  • Using a wood carving knife

Your portfolio should reflect the tools you have and like to use.

1.4 Tie and use a range of knots

I was a Yachtmaster in my previous life, so knots are something I find fun and straightforward. I’ve even led sessions on knots for my local FSA branch, but I know not everyone finds them so easy (see what I did there?!).

Again, you’ll want to include a bunch of photos showing off your knots.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

This photo shows me demonstrating to fellow forest school students how to tie a square lashing to secure two sticks together with bramble cordage.

I included photos of the following knots along with an explanation of what they are used for and what they are being used for in my photos:

  • Bowline
  • Clove hitch
  • Trucker’s hitch
  • Timber hitch
  • Sheet bend

And finally I included a picture of a rope bridge I had made around a circle of 5 trees and a child (face obscured) using it.

1.5 Safely make a range of craft items

I wouldn’t say I was the most crafty of people, but I do enjoy many of the aspects of crafting with woodland materials. I included photos of some of the things I had created. You don’t have to worry about the image quality. As long as the assessor can see what’s in the photo, you don’t have to be the best photographer.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

This photo shows two greenwood working items I have crafted. The fox was made from beech. I split a log into 6 segments with an axe they used one segment to make it. I then whittled the fox head. I used a pen to highlight her features. I used a Mora wood carving knife for this. The spoon was carved on my residential weekend using sweet chestnut wood. I used an axe to get the shape then a curved spoon knife to do the bowl and a standard Mora to finish the rest. Once dried out, I sanded it.

I also included photos and descriptions of the following:

  • Bramble basket
  • Nettle rope
  • Name disk (you’ll definitely have one of those around! It counts!)
  • Blow bowl

You might have made many items during the course of your training or your sessions with your learners. You might be given a suggested number to include but my recommendation is that you try to show a range of skills using different materials.

1.6 Erect temporary group shelters

The point of a temporary group shelter is to create some weather protection from rain or sun and there are lots of ways to do it. Whether you go all out for a classic ‘den’ or use tarpaulins and other materials, being able to get a shelter up is an important practical skill.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

I shared photos of:

  • Basic group shelter made with DD 3m tarp (like this one), with a ridgeline set across the diagonal with corners secured to a nearby tree and tensioned with a rolling hitch
  • Mini shelter I made during my training
  • Bigger shelter with two overlapping tarps, tensioned with a pole.

1.7 Safely site, build, light and manage a campfire

One of the highlights for my groups is hot chocolate and marshmallows, and I tend to structure my sessions around this: the first half includes fire prep for those that want to take part, then we meet around the fire circle for snack time, and then the rest of the session takes place.

In this section of my portfolio I shared 4 different examples of fires, using photos and explaining each one.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

This photo shows a rocket stove I made from a pine log. It was split into quarters and then I hollowed out the inside and made an air hole using an axe and folding saw. I then tied the log back together using wire. It was lit using a ferro rod sparking on to the shavings made from hollowing out the middle. The log then burns from the inside out, which makes it good to use in damp conditions. It is resting on a large log to keep it off the ground, in a fire circle made of bricks. It’s a small fire for cooking on.

I went on to outline the other fires: a large cooking fire, a Kelly kettle fire and a lattice construction fire.

1.8 Cook on a campfire using a range of methods

I used 4 photos to illustrate the section on cooking on a campfire as well. Show off your skills by using images of what you have made around a fire! It doesn’t have to be fancy, but ideally you’ll want to showcase a couple of different methods. If you’ve referred to a few different fires in the previous section, you could note down what you cooked on each of them.

Wondering what to cook? Here are 11 ideas for cooking on a campfire.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

The photo I used shows cooking bacon for breakfast using a mess tin over a rocket stove. This is an excellent way of cooking for one over a small fire.

I also shared photos and commentary about making one pot chilli, preparing dough for bread twists (my recipe is here) and cooking breakfast during my training course.

You can talk about how you managed the fires to create the right amount of heat, safe food prep and the equipment you used to cook.

1.9 Extinguish a fire and leave the site safe

Finally, in this section you should provide some evidence that you know how to extinguish a fire and leave the site in a safe way, with no trace.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

I just used a photo of me pouring leftover water from the kettle to put out the fire, with a note about scattering the ashes with leaf litter to ensure there was no trace afterwards. You don’t have to write loads for this piece (or any of the pieces) as long as you can concisely evidence that you know what to do and have experience doing it.

2. Facilitate a range of practical skills

This section is all about making sure you can share your skills with others. There’s a lot of ‘demonstrating’ and ‘explaining’ which means sharing your knowledge with the client group/learners. The assessment criteria for this unit are also quite extensive. I’ve carried on with numbering them so you can more easily follow along below. You’ll be assessed on the following:

2.1 Explain how to facilitate the correct use of PPE

2.2 Explain how to facilitate the safe checking, cleaning and storage of tools/ropes and cords

2.3 Demonstrate and explain how to facilitate the safe use of a range of hand tools

2.4 Demonstrate and explain how to facilitate the tying and using of a range of knots for different applications

2.5 Explain how to facilitate the making of a range of items using natural materials

2.6 explain how to facilitate the safe erection of temporary group shelters

2.7 Demonstrate and explain how to facilitate safe use of a campfire

2.8 Explain how to facilitate safe campfire cooking

2.9 Explain how to facilitate the safe extinguishing of fire

Ready to review what your portfolio needs for these? Let’s go!

2.1 Explain how to facilitate the correct use of PPE

You’ve already included content about your use of PPE, so now it’s the turn of showing that you can equip learners with the same safe PPE for when they take part in activities. You can reference other sections of your workbook, for example risk assessments here.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

When using tools, children use gloves on their non-tool hand for protection.

This was accompanied by a photo of a child using a saw. I included other photos showing children in hi-vis jackets (we have orange ones like these) for the walk to and from the forest school site, plus another of children playing in a stream wearing appropriate clothing. Each picture was matched with commentary explaining it.

2.2 Explain how to facilitate the safe checking, cleaning and storage of tools/ropes and cords

Use images of children (obscured as necessary) to demonstrate that you have shared safety facts with them and that they know the correct protocols for the tools, ropes and cords that they use. You could include text as well to provide some narrative examples of how this activity has taken place during one of your sessions. By the time you’ve run your sessions you will have a pool of information and examples to draw from.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

All children are taught that tools are placed back into the tool box after use with blades covered. Photo shows a child replaced the safety cover on loppers after use.

2.3 Demonstrate and explain how to facilitate the safe use of a range of hand tools

This is another section of your portfolio where it helps to have images. Take lots of photos (make sure you secure the relevant permissions before doing so)!

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

Pin hammer: used for leaf printing on to cloth. Use light pin hammers that are easy to use and control with small hands.

Drill and bit: Wood is safely secured by foot. Child is drilling through into the tree stump in the photo, not the ground. Used under close supervision.

I also included images and commentary for the following tools:

  • Knife and mallet
  • Hatchet and mallet
  • Bow saw
  • Secateurs.

2.4 Demonstrate and explain how to facilitate the tying and using of a range of knots for different applications

Children can get involved with tying knots for rope bridges, ridge lines, swings and more, as well as on a smaller scale for craft items such as bird feeders. You can find opportunities to help children who are interested learn more about knots and how to tie them.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

I included 3 photos showing different knots: one of a child tying a timber hitch to start a ridge line, one of children working together to apply tension to a ridge line using a trucker’s hitch and finally one of a bird feeder made with a jar, sticks and string with lark’s head and figure of eight knots.

2.5 Explain how to facilitate the making of a range of items using natural materials

This section will be easy if you are crafty! Pick some of your favourite craft activities using natural materials and take photos of the finished items or the children making them.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

I used photos and explanations of the following items:

  • Wooden mallets
  • Tent pegs
  • Green wood ducks (a bit like the wooden reindeers I make at Christmas)
  • Bird feeders (doing double duty here as both a craft item and evidence that learners in my sessions are able to tie knots!)
  • Boats
  • Bramble basket
  • Tree faces

2.6 explain how to facilitate the safe erection of temporary group shelters

We don’t always need a ‘proper’ shelter on site but for the purposes of making sure there was enough evidence for the portfolio, it’s worth offering the opportunity to a group. Alternatively, there is always den building, and children in my sessions always seem to enjoy that!

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

Design and construction of the group shelter in this photo was child-led. It was made with a mixture of ropes, wooden poles and tarps. The children started with a ridge line which I helped them to tighten but the rest of it was built themselves. I brought wooden poles in from another site to avoid having to cut down trees unnecessarily. They were ash poles which had been cut down to thin out a woodland on another site.

I also included a photo of a frame survival shelter built without cordage and some narrative around how that came about.

2.7 Demonstrate and explain how to facilitate safe use of a campfire

During the colder months there are loads of opportunities for campfires, and children seem to love the experience of creating a flame. Grab some photos of what your learners have been up to and use them along with some text to talk about how you have helped others understand campfire safety.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

This photo shows a medium sized fire used for cooking bread. It still had to be kept relatively small as it has to be lit and extinguished safely in a 2-hour session, but big enough to provide coals for cooking on. The children collected the wood and built a small pyramid on a metal tray which was raised on bricks. This improves air flow and keeps the fire off the damp ground. The children lit it using a ferro rod and cotton wool, on a clam shell. I then used leather gloves to empty the lit contents of the shell on to the fire.

I also wrote about and included photos of using a Kelly kettle.

2.8 Explain how to facilitate safe campfire cooking

You can cover basic hygiene in this section, talking about hand washing and safety while cooking. For example, children are asked to count to 10 before they eat a toasted marshmallow (we use these ones to meet a range of dietary needs) to ensure they don’t burn their mouths.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

I included four images and descriptions that showed a handwash station, toasting marshmallows, making popcorn and making bread twists.

2.9 Explain how to facilitate the safe extinguishing of fire

Part of being able to cook on a fire is being able to put it out afterwards. This section requires you to evidence that your learners understand about putting out a fire.

Example from my Level 3 Forest School portfolio

I included photos of two children putting out fires: one extinguishing the Kelly kettle fire and the other dousing the embers of a larger fire. I added this to the narrative alongside the latter photo:

The remains are left in the fire pit. This is not a ‘leave no trace’ fire as we use the same fire pit every time. The pit itself has become its own habitat. It is lower than the ground around which means it often fills with rain water and is always damp. Before each fire is lit I check for frogs and toads who like to hid among the damp bricks.

Creating your portfolio

Your training provider will probably provide guidance notes – I got helpful guidance notes from the Sussex Wildlife Trust which were useful in identifying the major points and topics to include in my responses. The notes also sometimes provided a word length, which was helpful.

Your trainer will also have advice, and my group created a WhatsApp group so there was a lot of chat on there as we went through our training.

Good luck with your Forest School Leader training!

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