Cooking up treats at Forest School

BBQs aren't just for summer. Forest School and Communications Officer Molly Toal chats about the benefits of outdoor cooking with youngsters.

There’s something both exciting and comforting about a campfire, and succeeding in creating fire yourself, without matches, can be very uplifting for one’s self-esteem. The first time I had a go at fire-lighting it took me a good ten minutes to turn a spark into a proper flame. I was tempted to give up but I persevered and after what felt like an eternity, the little piece of cotton wool I was trying to light was suddenly engulfed in fire. It gave me a real sense of accomplishment (and, after a lot of practice, I’m much better at fire-lighting now).

One of the most popular activities at Forest School is having a campfire. The children will often talk about it for weeks in advance and ask at the start of every session, “Are we having a fire today?”

An activity that involves a campfire can offer many benefits to learners’ development. Children gain knowledge and skills in fire-lighting and fire safety, which are both fun and help children learn to manage their own risks. A campfire is also a great opportunity and novel way of introducing learners to cooking. Preparing food and eating together around the fire fosters a sense of camaraderie among the group, promotes fine motor skills (by chopping and stirring), can boosts children’s confidence in their own abilities and can help promote a healthy relationship with food and nature, all of which can benefit learners in wider life.

forest school fire

When we have a snack with our fire, lots of the children particularly enjoying toasting marshmallows and squashing them between biscuits to make smores, but that’s not all you can cook outside. Cooking activities can be tailored to fit with the abilities of your learners – we’ve made smores, bread, soup, cupcakes, chilli, popcorn, vegetable skewers, pancakes and even elderflower cordial at Forest School – all of which have varying levels of difficulty and numbers of ingredients. Depending on the time of year, you can even incorporate foraged or ‘home-grown’ food into your cooking if you have a vegetable or herb garden in your Forest School area. Just make sure you are completely confident that you have identified any foraged food correctly as many wild-growing plants have poisonous lookalikes.

This December, we ended our final session with Millstead Primary School in Liverpool by lighting a campfire in Everton Park Nature Garden. With it being winter, there wasn’t anything for us to forage in our Forest School area, and we had toasted marshmallows recently, so after a short discussion we decided to make toast and popcorn.

The children first split some wood with a bushcraft knife and mallet so we had plenty of fuel for our fire. Once the fire was lit, we placed a grill over the top and added our bread. The children watched the bread toasting with patient excitement, shouting out requests for how they liked their toast done. A couple of pieces were a tad scorched at the corners but luckily, in my experience, there’s always someone in a group who loves burned toast. One little boy, Archie, a non-verbal child who has difficulty communicating with others, impressed staff by making a sentence strip with pictures, saying “I want more toast please”. Our mid-morning snack was a big hit with the children and adults alike; the loaf was gone within minutes.

forest school fire popcorn

In the afternoon, it was time to try out popcorn. We started off by heating up a little bit of vegetable oil in a saucepan. Once the oil was hot, we poured in our popcorn kernels, added a spoonful of sugar for flavouring and gave it a stir. We then placed a lid on top and watched with anticipation. It was a tense few minutes waiting to see if our culinary skills would pay off, and then we heard an unmistakable pop. Everyone cheered and had a turn stirring the kernels. Popping pieces kept flying out into the fire when we took the lid off, much to the children’s amusement. Nevertheless, there was plenty of popcorn left for us all to enjoy and we washed it down with some hot chocolate, very carefully made by a young girl in the group.

Everyone really enjoyed their day of outdoor cooking, especially staff from school, who are now thinking up what they can cook up next.

To find out more about our Forest School Project, supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, visit our project pages: https://www.lancswt.org.uk/forest-schools-manchester and https://www.lancswt.org.uk/forest-schools-liverpool or email Forest School Project and Communications Officer, Molly Toal at mtoal@lancswt.org.uk.