The autumnal shade of Gelli Hir woods was alive to the sound of excited chatter, as a group of children took part in a bug hunt, as part of their Forest school event organised by Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group (SBASSG). A number of the children had been new to each other at the start of the day and had been a bit shy at first, but after the first few games they were fully participating in various woodland activities. Even the youngest of the children soon gained enough confidence to leave their parents to go and hunt for different coloured leaves and other woodland objects.
This activity day was one of five set up by SBASSG providing opportunities for urban-based asylum seeker children to confidently access and appreciate open green spaces on Gower through the medium of Forest School. The Forest School based on the Gower near Swansea, South Wales is one of many UK-wide that provides classrooms in the woods were participants can experience sensory awareness, creativity and imaginative play by exploring the natural environment.
Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group is run by a number of volunteers made up of local people, asylum seekers and refugees who provide support and opportunities for new-arrival asylum seekers in and around Swansea. The group has been aware of asylum seekers' desire to access green spaces and to provide opportunities for their children to take part in outdoor activities. They have arranged various visits and events to local and regional venues, often by working in partnership with other organisations such as Displaced People in Action and Minority Ethnic Women’s Network Swansea.
During the Spring of 2005 two events triggered the development of the SBASSG Forest School project. The first was the ‘Scream in the Forest’ event at the Bishops Wood local nature reserve, Gower in which BEN assisted in setting up a day of activities with story telling, singing and a camp fire provided by the local rangers to enable families to let off steam. Next was the catalyst Forest School taster session organised by Nesta Steffens a SBASSG volunteer and also at Bishops Wood. Here, Forest School employees provided a safe supportive and stimulating environment, encouraging and inspiring confidence in everyone through various tasks in the woodland classroom while promoting understanding and appreciation of the natural environment.
The participants enjoyed and learned so much from the Forest School taster session that Nesta was inspired devise many more. And BEN was brought in as a partner to assist the development of a longer term Forest school project to begin at the earliest opportunity, so that the initial excitement and impetus was not lost.
BEN successfully applied to Environment Wales so that the events could take place during the summer and autumn of 2005 and spring of 2006. The funding for this environmental education and integration pilot project supported 5 one-day Forest School education days with up to 15 youngsters at each event to take place at woodland venues, Gower near Swansea. The funds were specifically to access a community transport mini bus to and from the event, to employ youth workers provided by the Local Authority to accompany the participants who would all be under 14 years old and to pay Forest School Staff to run the events.
Roles and responsibilities of the partnership were agreed: SBASSG would set up the events with Forest School and recruit participants, and BEN would manage the funding.Due to the rapid assistance from Environment Wales the first two groups of children were able to attend Forest School in Gelli Hir woods on Gower during August 2005. The young people ranged in age from 7 to 13 and included Pakistani, Iranian, Palestinian, Ugandan, Sudanese and Welsh invited by their asylum seeker friends.
On arriving at the woods safety rules and icebreaking introductions took place, followed by various activities ranging from follow the flour trail, den making, blindfold trail, bug hunting and collecting wood to build a fire to cook veggie sausages and marshmallows.
One of the youth workers Lily Barate-Steffens commented that "the children were all very excited and enthusiastic. A couple of them were hesitant to start with but soon integrated once the activities got going. Cooking around the fire and making bows and arrows were the favorites of the day"
Two Autumn events with similar activities took place in October, with children of 4 –7 years on the first day and 8–9 years old on the second day. The youth workers Maria Longley and Paulo Madeira said "On both days there was a lot of co-operation and teamwork in the groups, and the children got more confident throughout the day. The Forest School leaders provided a good variety of suitable games and activities for the individual groups and got the children exploring the forest and woodland environment around them. And children from both groups wanted to know when they could go to Forest School next."
Following on from this project new opportunities for SBASSG to work directly with Environment Wales have emerged. They are optimistic that they will soon learn how to develop similar events in the future.
To date this innovative project has been an example of good practice that has enabled friendships and integration between asylum seekers, refugees and local communities through the Forest School medium of outdoor environmental education. All the children and young people involved have developed an appreciation and understanding of the local environment. This green space project has demonstrated awareness raising, cross-sector networking and an opportunity to explore new ways to address issues and tackle barriers that may benefit similar groups across South Wales.Contacts:
Swansea Bay Asylum Seekers Support Group, c/o Nesta Garate, Swansea Bay Young Asylum Seekers, 40 Bay Tree Avenue, Sketty Park
Forest School, Bishops Wood Countryside Centre, Caswell, Swansea SA3 3BS