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Woods for Learning at Horsham RFC

Woods for Learning (©AAH/Alan Wright)

‘Okay, you can all head back to camp now!’ says Gary Marlow. He is stood by his favourite tree, in woodland close to Horsham Rugby Club. He has just explained to a group of children how the tree was split in two when it was struck by lightning, sending most of it crashing down to earth.

The pupils from Moon Hall School in Reigate excitedly scurry off down the path. One self-appointed leader with a makeshift walking stick confidently declares he ‘knows the way’ and leads the rest on a jolly jaunt around a holly bush and into the woods. Five minutes later, the youngsters re-emerge, looking rather pleased with their navigational prowess. That is until they realise they’re back where they started, at the splintered tree. Gary grins as he points to a green parachute canopy which marks out the Woods for Learning camp. It is no more than 15 metres away in the other direction. And so, the children learn an important lesson. ‘Always make sure you know your bearings!’


Gary Marlow founded Woods for Learning as a Community Interest Company (CIC) in 2014 to meet a growing need for children to experience life outdoors. He had already established another business, Marlow Sports, helping children to enjoy physical activities. Having made connections with local schools, in particular specialist schools, he launched woodland courses to complement his existing business.‘When we started, nobody was doing anything like this locally,’ he said. ‘Of course, other businesses have since formed with their own slant on outdoor learning, and many schools now run their own “forest schools” programme, which is fantastic. Children spend a lot of time on computers and mobile phones, and there are fewer opportunities for them to play outside, due to busier roads and streets. Most of the woodland that remains is in private hands now too.’

‘So, our concept was to offer child-centred learning in the woods, catering for school groups, private parties, families and holiday clubs. We teach survival skills, such as how to build a shelter with natural materials, tie knots and make a camp fire. Some of the skills are similar to those used by well-known adventurers and survivalists like Ray Mears and Bear Grylls, who most children are familiar with. We also teach people how to look after their natural environment. We don’t just name different trees; we explain how they impact our lives and the flora, fauna and insects around them. Armed with such knowledge, children build a picture of the eco-system.’ 


Woods for Learning courses were initially held in the ancient woodlands at Leechpool and Owlbeech in Horsham. Both sites are managed by Horsham District Council, but some of the most popular parts of the woods are now closed to the public, in order to protect the habitat of several bird species. While searching for a new venue, Gary spotted an opportunity in another part of St Leonard’s Forest, along Hammerpond Road at Coolhurst.He said: ‘My daughter plays football for Roffey Robins and her team trains at Horsham Rugby Club. There is an eight-acre area of woodland next to the clubhouse, and through the Land Registry I discovered it was owned by the club. I arranged a meeting with Horsham RFC’s Chairman and presented a proposal to use it as a base for Woods for Learning. The club was delighted that the woods would be used to help educate young people.’

‘It is the perfect size, as there’s space for us to move the camp around to allow areas to naturally recover, yet not so big that we can’t give ample opportunity for children and adults to explore and get a taste for adventure. We can also do things that we couldn't at the Council-managed sites. If a tree presents a hazard, we can act quickly, rather than having to follow local authority channels that can cause delays. Another benefit is that we don’t need to assemble and disassemble camp every day. 

Once, we had 60 primary school pupils arriving for a course on a Monday morning, but overnight, someone stole our portable toilet! We had to rush around for a replacement! Fortunately, the rugby club has great facilities, as well as easy access and parking. The site also opens up opportunities for overnight camps and bushcraft events. There’s something magical about spending an evening around a campfire, drinking hot chocolate and roasting marshmallows, and we could possibly offer stargazing and night walks, with a focus on nocturnal creatures.’


Gary’s unique selling point is the experience he has of working with young people, particularly those with physical, sensory or learning difficulties. Being close to nature – listening for birds, touching plants and trees, identifying fungi, learning survival skills – inspires most children. But for those who miss electronic gizmos, Gary has incorporated computer games and social media into courses.

He said: ‘A few years ago, many primary pupils were hooked on Minecraft. I adapted elements of the game for the outdoor world, developing a points system for finding certain materials and precious metals or for learning survival skills. The current trend is TikTok and we’re looking at fun ways to use that too. You can't get away from the fact that children have phones and use them a lot, so we embrace that in a way that increases their engagement and participation.’‘As well as having vast experience of working with young people myself, I have brought in others who communicate well with children. One young person with autism first started coming to courses when he was seven. He is now a teenager and loves helping run the courses, passing on his enthusiasm to others.’ 


Adults can enjoy the outdoor courses too. Woods for Learning has hosted foraging and cooking evenings for grown-ups, providing a different kind of team-building exercise that promotes wellbeing amongst colleagues. Gary has also formed partnerships with other businesses to offer workshops and programmes. These have included summer camps at Wakehurst Kew Gardens, while some of his ideas are inspiring a community-led project at Borde Hill Gardens, Haywards Heath. He hopes that by increasing awareness of our natural world, he can inspire positive change. 

‘Every child knows we are destroying the planet and that we need to do more for our natural environment,’ said Gary. ‘If you educate the next generation from a young age, you might set someone on the road to making a big difference in the future. Maybe these children will be the ones who finally start reversing current trends, which are contributing to and accelerating climate change, and put us all on a better path.’

Words: Ben Morris / Photos: Alan Wright
For details of future courses and camps, visit www.woodsforlearning.com 

Article published in AAH Magazine on 1st April 2023.