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Developing vocabulary through a sensory approach in a woodland environment at Alfreton Nursery

About our school

We are a nursery school in Alfreton. This project was carried out in the Summer term 2018, when the nursery had 86 pupils on role, some coming full days due to 30 hours funding. 

We are a school that consistently achieves outstanding through our OFSTED inspections and are now a Teaching School, supporting and developing School Direct students and sharing outstanding practice with the schools that have chosen to join our teaching alliance.  We have an outstanding reputation for outdoor education and we are leaders in our field for a whole variety of initiatives, including AMA, Emotional Well Being and our creative approach to education.  

We are led by an inspiring Head teacher, who is highly regarded in the county and strives extremely hard to make our school consistently outstanding, and who motivates and develops a very dedicated and enthusiastic team of professionals.   


I chose to look at the vocabulary the children learn through having the amazing opportunity to learn in our beautiful, natural woodland setting. I also wanted to see if the natural environment woodland created a calming space, alongside a sense of belonging and security, to enable children’s language to be shared more willingly. I hoped:

- to observe the impact on individual vocabulary, through a sensory approach to sharing vocabulary;

- to observe the impact that being part of a consistent small group, learning together in a calming, sensory woodland environment, would have on children's willingness to share their language more;

- to see whether discussions and interactions with their peers, alongside group sensory discussion, would enable them to retain and share an extended vocabulary at the end of the project. 

The focus for this project was 'tree'.


During an initial observation, I collected the initial set of words for each individual child. The children then had a weekly Forest School session for a whole morning in our woodland environment over 7 weeks. Then, during a final observation, I collected another set of words so we could reflect on the impact.


I chose 2 children, J, a girl,  and T, a boy.  J was chosen because she had good vocabulary skills, but her willingness to share this with others around her was limited, due to self-consciousness and a lack of confidence.  I chose T because he also had a good vocabulary, but this tended to be shared enthusiastically through real interests i.e. mini beasts. I wanted to see if through a different theme he could achieve a similar enthusiasm to share, extend and consolidate his language skills.  

Both children were taken into the woodland space that they had become familiar with and were asked to choose a favourite tree. Both children chose a tree that they had consistently had interactions with. T chose the 'letter tree' (which was transformed into the letter tree each week by the forest school group), and J chose the 'climbing tree'. 

The initial observation

I sat beside their chosen tree, on a 1-to-1 with them, and simply asked them to tell me everything they could about their favourite tree. There was no prompting involved, they were just given the time that they needed to think, reflect and share the vocabulary that they knew about their tree.  This was the result of the original vocabulary collecting:

T offered 8 words in total: tree, branches, leaves, bark, flies, flowers, dandelions, grass 

J offered 7 words in total: tree, leaves, long branches, black ( it had some disease that turned part of the trunk black), bark, ants

Over the next few weeks

Over the next few weeks we visited these trees as a Forest School Group (12 children in total): a mixture of 3rd and 4th term children, and a consistent peer group. We sat as a group, usually after snack time, so as not to interrupt their own individual explorations and learning experiences, and we talked about the 2 trees.  I prompted them to think in a sensory way, asking what sounds they could hear, what they could see and what the trees felt like. We lay down and looked up and talked about the canopy and we climbed the climbing tree to see what language they discovered up higher. Looking at the trees from a different perspective created new language. We interacted with the trees, including challenging their abilities to climb up higher into the climbing tree and we bounced vocabulary off each other as a whole group.  This created lots of lovely language-sharing and f rich vocabulary use. Hopefully, this was being absorbed and made sense of through not only using language, but interacting with their language and developing their understanding of it, as they used their senses to make sense of the words they were sharing.   

J was constantly climbing up into the climbing tree, challenging himself each time he did so, gaining in confidence and sharing vocabulary as he climbed.  T was more reluctant to climb into the tree, but began to grow in her confidence. Family outdoor experiences of tree climbing whilst out together helped her confidence to grow and she gradually became familiar with her ability to climb into the Forest School tree. 

T loved to create with woodland materials and was often seen creating habitats and houses, sometimes on her own, but as her confidence grew, she began to build with a friend, using natural materials and different methods to build and create.  My favourite was when she was shown how to fix her materials with natural materials, instead of string. She had huge fun problem-solving and fixing with goose grass as she created a nest for owl up in the lower branches of a tree. 

J also enjoyed creating, especially the week we needed to protect the cracking dragon eggs. He was so animated and was convinced the dragon lived in the big rocks over the fence.  He was so excited and his language skills and vocabulary throughout that activity were incredibly imaginative, as was his approach to the bed that he made and the carefully chosen materials that he used.  His problem-solving methodology was reflective of the challenge he had been set, deciding to place it as far away from the rocks as he could … he moved it twice, just to be sure it was safe.  

These imaginative and creative interactions with natural materials linked to the tree. Building with them, understanding where the branches, bark, leaves etc. had come from and how they could use them, was constantly adding to and enriching their vocabulary and skills as they interacted with the trees, within the trees and around the trees using the natural materials on offer.   

Both children were animated, enthusiastic and motivated explorers through their Forest School learning and they both challenged themselves, absorbed themselves in their environment, and both developed the confidence and the ability to share their discoveries, celebrations and learning experiences with others around them.  T thoroughly enjoyed sharing Forest Schools with mum too, in the woodland area.

Both children enjoyed sharing their adventures at home, communicating with families, through the support of Facebook images to prompt them.  I know that this was happening as both families relayed that they were doing this, recalling with them all that they had done at Forest School, sharing and enriching their vocabulary at home.  

Both children enjoyed natural experiences at home and T’s family enjoyed sharing lots of Tapestry posts of outdoor family experiences that showed her engaging and enjoying woodland explorations and tree climbing within the security of her family.  This was great for me to observe as I could visibly see her consolidating and extending her experiences between home and school, naturally helping to progress her confidence and skills.


The final observation

Both children were reminded to use their senses, as they had in the tree explorations with their peers. No other prompting was offered. 

T offered 41 words: stem, tree trunk, seeds, owl, nest, hiding, tree, bark, apples, birds, chicks, leaves, soil, underground, roots, plants, food, flies, hanging, pigeon, spider, web, canopy, branches, it goes up and up, blowing, bumpy, smooth, scratchy, wasp, bee, twigs, big, lots of leaves blowing. 

J offered 31 words: tree, smooth, climb, feel it, stand up, green stuff, a nest, leaves, canopy at the top, species, green flies, tickles, flowers, bark, branches, sticks, plants, weeds, wind, birds, blowing, seeds, tree holes

My reflections

The result of this sensory approach led to results that were amazing.  I didn’t expect their vocabulary to be used as extensively as it was.  I observed this during their own individual play and interactions in the woodland.  T most definitely began to use language with more confidence and was able to share her language and recall and retell through experiences that she engaged with.  Using photos on a weekly basis, they were able to communicate and share these experiences at home too, visual prompts enabling their conversations to flow.  Both families expressed how enthusiastic they were and how much they enjoyed Forest Schools and talked to them about what they had been doing.  Both families extended these experiences through enjoying outdoor experiences together as families. T’s mum came to 2 Forest School sessions to share this experience with her daughter and lovely language was developed and observed between them both. 

I feel that for both of these children these were not new words, although some of them were eg: canopy and species. However, they were both able to use words in the context of what they were observing, because they had interacted with the trees, observed the trees, shared familiar vocabulary in a safe and consistent peer group, been able to explore the words that they had shared together and most importantly, understood the words and used them through their play and interactions, consolidating their vocabulary and giving it meaning through sensory exploration.  

Children can learn lots of new words, but these can simply become knowledge, unless they have the opportunity to interact and play with these words, to give them meaning and context, enabling them to make sense of them.  These are the words that then become words that they remember and use and become a natural part of their vocabulary. These words become words that they don’t lose. These words become treasured words. 

Next steps

I will continue to use this approach at a relevant time in their Forest School explorations.  The children are constantly using vocabulary through their interactions and this is extended through teacher observations, and when relevant, new vocabulary shared.  I will encourage extended experiences and opportunities to consolidate and play with their language, to enable their language skills to be understood and extended naturally as these skills develop. The rich sensory environment offers so may language opportunities and it takes a highly skilled teacher to observe and discover opportunities for language and vocabulary to be explored and developed. This is what I strive to do every Forest School session. 

The children have an amazing weekly experience and the language opportunities are vast. You need to explore and extend them together and create a positive well-being within all your children, a confidence within them to want to share their language, and an environment that shouts ‘Explore and discover here!’ ... I think we have all these elements, and this enables our children to thrive in the language skills that they are willing to share every day.  


Laura Dolby, Nursery Teacher, Forest School Leader, Specialist Leader of Education in the EYFS, Alfreton Nursery School

01773 520031

Additional information

You are always welcome to visit and share in this wonderful experience.  Forest Schools happens every Tuesday throughout the year and we have 2 amazing woodlands on site that we have developed from fields.  It really is inspiring and a brilliant example of what can be achieved in the outdoors through dedication and teamwork and a passion for the importance of outdoor learning.  Laura Dolby.

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