Health and Safety
There are a number of toxic, and deadly, plants and fungi that grow wild in UK woodlands. Lots of common edible plants and fungi have poisonous lookalikes. The most important thing to do before eating anything in the wild is to be 100% sure of it’s identification.
One of the key rules for any forest school session should be that children do not taste anything unless they have checked with you that it is safe to eat. Children need to understand that even if a plant is edible it may not be safe to eat depending on the location in which it was picked. Food that has grown on busy road side verges or on hedgerows next to farmland that has been sprayed for example is likely to be unsafe for example. The ‘no pick, no lick’ rule is a simple method of reminding younger children of the dangers of indiscriminately eating wild food.
Preservation and Conservation of the Woodland
Flowers, grasses, sticks are twigs are common resources used in most forest school sessions. It is important that they are only picked in moderation and that the woodland is given ample time to recover. This may involve rotating areas of the woodland that are used for forest school sessions or planning sessions to avoid repeated use of the same materials.
Over consumption of resources can have a devastating impact on a woodland. For example, an increase in people foraging fungi and in some cases commercially picking edible fungi from UK forests poses a risk to the long term survival of some fungi species.
Foraging and the Law
The legalities of foraging are governed by three main pieces of legislation, The Theft Act, 1968, The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 and the Countryside Rights of Way Act, 2004.
It is normally not an offence to collect fruit, flowers, foliage and fungi for personal consumption and if the plants are growing wild. It is illegal to uproot any plant without permission of the landowner. Most landowners are happy to give permission to forage if approached in a respectful manner. Some rare or endangered plants, such as bluebells and snowdrops, are protected by law and it is illegal to pick them.
Any plants you are picking must be in a wild location and not on council or otherwise protected land. This can include, for example, nature reserves, council parkland, roundabouts or roadside verges and these are off limits.
Children are avid explorers and are likely to have many questions about the things they find and do in forest school sessions. A strong and secure subject knowledge is a vital component in being able to answer their questions and help them learn. It is equally important though to acknowledge that learning does not stop and there will undoubtedly be occasions when they have questions you cannot answer. If these questions are embraced as opportunities to improve your practice you will likely learn as much from them as they do from you.
Poisonous Plants Leaflet
I have created a poisonous plants leaflet which features the most common poisonous plants in my area. It will be useful to take along to sessions but a more thorough guide, such as the book Poisonous Plants: A Guide for Parents & Childcare Providers, would be necessary when assessing new areas to use for forest school sessions.