Oak Forest School

A Dearne Valley Woodland that Changes Lives

A New Style of Learning Experience

Local woods have been the setting for members of the local community to get stuck in to bush-craft skills and outdoor activities. The impact upon children and young people at risk of exclusion from school and those with Special Educational Needs and Disability has been particularly important and in some cases life enhancing. 

A team of local adults are being trained to lead these activities themselves so that more people can benefit from this way of learning and working together in the future. 

The project has achieved so far:

  • A positive impact in schools and alternative education settings in the Dearne Valley
  • Bushcraft Leader Training course is now accredited by the Institute of Outdoor Learning which began in Spring 2019
  • DVLP have enabled 20 places on the course to be covered by full bursaries
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The Discovery Table at Oak Forest School
Unleashing the potential of woodlands

During planning, the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership identified the importance of re-connecting people with the nature of the Dearne including woodlands as an important habitat. The challenge was how to do this in a sustainable way reaching more people than the programme team could by themselves and how to continue once the scheme had finished. 

Developing the skills of local people to facilitate programmes in the woodland was an ideal solution alongside a programme of events.  Melyvn Mills, founder of Oak Forest School and Wilderness Skills CIC  (based in Howell Wood a 120 acre semi-ancient woodland in the Dearne Valley; one of the five local priority woodlands identified by the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership) has experienced the positive impact that Forest School style experiences and wilderness skills can have on individuals in communities and was therefore keen to work with the Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership to explore this potential further.

Upskilling the Community

Dearne Valley Landscape Partnership partnered with Oak Forest School to run a programme of events in five local priority woodlands including a BioBlitz working alongside other specialist groups such as Sorby Invertebrates Group. The Landscape Partnership then supported Melvyn Mills to develop accredited Bushcraft Leader Training.  The course is a combination of skills covering friction fire lighting; building shelters; wild food preparation and outdoor cooking; tree and plant identification; identifying animals by the signs they leave behind; health and safety and risk management.  Participants complete 120 hours of self-guided learning, before taking a two-day practical assessment.

Interest in the new course came from many different local people already working with children in a variety of roles such as teachers, teaching assistants and scout leaders.

Ben Jones started by volunteering at Howell Wood and when the course came up, he jumped at the opportunity to learn more and gain accreditation. Ben describes himself as an underachiever at school and marked as ‘stupid’. Later, he went on to be diagnosed as severely dyslexic. He feels this experience has directly led to him being feeling motivated to work with children with additional needs and has spurred him on to gain extra qualifications.

Ben has now worked with five different schools, a woodland playscheme and also worked with adults and on courses with teachers to help them work with children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) in the same way as the Forest School; focusing on giving them an equal chance to achieve.

’By me being that kid, I can make that difference and I can show these kids that I was in the same boat. I can show them what I can do, how I learn.’

Making a real difference to children and young people

The impact of bushcraft and connecting children and young people to local nature is apparent in all this work.

Ben Jones has seen that parents notice the positive difference in basic motor skills and improving manners as a result of children working with tools.

‘We are there to show them and teach them – and trust them to use them [the tools]. Because they are learning what the meaning of respect is, there are spin offs – social and emotional learning that are non intentional both in the home environment and the school environment. It can be a small subtle change that makes a big difference.’

Ben is an advocate for the difference this style of outdoor learning can make and has seen it first-hand.  For example, he worked alongside one child who has ASD and ADHD who was ‘bouncing round’ in his school setting and would sometimes display aggression. After attending Forest Schools for 3 years, Ben has seen his behaviour evolve. Initially, he was excluded from school dinners with other pupils because of his disruptive behaviour.  However, he has progressed so much that he has dinners full time in school and is included in the normal class activities. Ben feels that the Forest School experience has ‘made 1000 % difference from where he was to where he is now’ to this child.

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Start of a Group Session at Howell Wood

Lois Gore is teacher in charge at the Mulberry Centre in Doncaster; part of Maple Medical Pupil Referral Unit (PRU).  All the children at the Centre are diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. Oak Forest School has been working with the Mulberry Centre for 18 months.

Some of the children have never been on a school trip. Lois comments:

‘Going on the trips and doing Forest School has a massive impact on their self-esteem, resilience and social interaction,’ which is especially significant due to their ASD diagnoses and that, ‘the sessions give the children confidence working with different adults’.

’Louis has seen that children begin to take risks, for some of them it is a big thing just to go outside in the rain. At first, a few were reluctant to participate but the instructor has developed a sense of community and a sense of ownership. Over time the children have felt a bond with their instructor and they say it is their favourite day of the week.


Ben Jones explained how children respond to Oak Forest School.

’Kids that are not particularly adept academically can shine. Sometimes the academic children seem really out of their depth with tools. Children who have needs and can appear withdrawn come out of their shell and can far exceed what is expected. For example, ASD children tend to be good at 1 or 2 things (might have a focus). So, Forest Schools – building things out of wood/ building fires – can benefit them emotionally. It becomes a real positive, ‘I can do this’ or ‘I like this’. A Forest Schools style approach can give them a purpose and a success – giving them another direction. If I can give one kid that chance and that hope, if I can make a difference even a drop in the ocean, it’s worth it.’

Lois Gore:

About the combined trips to Howell Wood for parents and children at the Mulberry setting:

‘Forest Schools had been here [at the setting] for 1 ½ years and the parents wouldn’t or couldn’t believe the things the children were doing at Oak Forest Schools. We showed them photos but they couldn’t believe it. So we decided to take them with the children.’

‘I had worked alongside Melvin when I worked in mainstream and knew the impact the Forest School could make.’

Poster Advertising the Howell Wood Bio Blitz Event