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A Devon school has turned the great outdoors into a classroom

Kids who struggle in mainstream education study carpentry and willow work as well as the traditional subjects

Child playing outside

Children are studying a curriculum of conservation, willow work and carpentry at an ‘outdoor’ school in Devon.

Running Deer School was founded in 2011 for kids who struggle in mainstream education, instead focusing on practical skills that challenge and stimulate those with behavioural difficulties. Pupils also study traditional subjects like maths, English and science – and trebuchet-building.

“A lot of these kids can’t cope with the four walls of a school,” said the school’s founder Jo Winterburn. “When we get a referral we read on paper that these youngsters are behaving in a certain way – we never see these behaviours because being outdoors takes away all of these sensory issues and having the space and freedom to express themselves – if they go and bash a tree it doesn’t hurt anybody.”

The school offers one-to-one teaching for about a dozen children, and Winterburn thinks even more children could benefit from the Running Deer approach.

“We try to explain to them that it may seem you’re learning stuff that doesn’t seem to be relevant but we can take that into practice. For example, the kids built a trebuchet in the summer. That involves maths and physics. Another one is when they’re learning to fell a tree. They can see the practical sides.”

Children at the school are helped to understand and interact with the natural world around them, like what a pheasant looks like and where milk comes from (things children at the school have not known, said the founder).

“There is a big disconnect now between kids and nature and we do have kids who struggle not to use tablets and phones. We don’t allow any of that stuff. We’re giving them experiences so they know what the natural world is about.”

The school was able to purchase its location Butterdon Wood in 2013 thanks to support from Big Issue Invest in 2013.

“Big Issue Invest saved our skin,” says Winterburn . “If it wasn’t for The Big Issue we wouldn’t be here now and we wouldn’t be helping these youngsters.”

Read the full article in this week's Big Issue.
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