What Is Forest School?

What is Forest School?



Forest school originated in Scandinavia in the 1950’s and was intended as a means to teach about the Natural world and environmental issues. By the 1980’s Forest school had become a significant part of the preschool programme for under sevens that stems from their småbørnspædagogik, or Early Years Education and relies on learning by experience. The literal translation is ‘nature nurseries’ but they are known as forest schools so as not to alienate older children, although even the word ‘school’ is a misnomer as the experience is more about using the outside  natural environment on a regular basis without taking things out of the classroom.

  Forest school was introduced to Britain by Bridgwater College in 1993 and has since been developed into an educational programme which is used with children from early years through to young people with low self esteem and challenging behaviour. Rather than concentrating on academic skills the forest school approach is more focused on helping to develop personal, social and emotional skills such as self discovery, confidence and independence as well as encouraging communication skills and raising self-esteem. Children visit woodlands or outdoor areas and learn through play how to cooperate and work with others to solve problems, use their own initiative and handle risks

   Forest school provided within the context of my work situation, in conjunction with an environmental charity also has an underlying message of environmental awareness and encouraging children and young people to providing stewardship for outside spaces.

If tomorrows caretakers of the earth are to love and understand the natural world, they need to explore it, enjoy it and recognise our reliance upon it.” Danks & Schofield2005 p.13

   Forest School offers a unique and exciting way to deliver and complement aspects of any curriculum, from Foundation Stage to Lifelong Learning. Building self esteem is at the core of the Forest School ethos along with raising Emotional awareness, confidence, encouraging independence and providing opportunities for active outdoor play and discovery.

  Communication skills of participants benefit by providing stimulating, exciting activities that become memorable to children and adults alike. These deep level learning experiences are much more accessible from the memory, which enable participants to talk about and transfer their experiences in a meaningful way. 

  Specialist Forest School Practitioners focus on the personal development and individual learning styles of the children, providing them with a good environment in which to learn and achieve, helping them to build their self-esteem, social skills and independence. Forest school programmes can last from 6 weeks to 36 weeks. Each programme is tailored to meet the individual needs of the participants taking into account their stage of development and learning styles and is, as far as possible, child led, to capitalise on their interests and to promote a sense of ownership. Forest school activities develop practical and intellectual skills which can all be linked to the National Curriculum and early learning goals of the foundation stage curriculum.

   Each session combines woodland activities with teambuilding games and builds upon and extends the skills learnt in previous sessions. The children are set up for a successful experience building their self esteem, leading to greater self confidence. All instructions are given verbally, visually and by using practical demonstrations in order to cater for all learning styles and in particular for kinaesthetic learners. Activities are broken down into small achievable steps.  Each step celebrates the child’s success. The activities are often photographed and the pictures along with the children’s comments will provide a basis for a classroom book made by the children.  Sometimes the adults’ concepts of children that they are in contact with can be drastically changed as the adults see the children in a whole new light. The children discover skills and abilities that they had never been able to demonstrate before. Also because the whole forest school environment is new to all the participants both adult and child then the adults take on more the role of learners rather than experts and are more willing to explore and experiment with the children rather than instructing them how to achieve a task.

   The definition of what a forest school is and how it should be run differs from provider to provider, some advocate that it is necessary to run forest school sessions in a woodland area however others feel that it can operate in any outside space. Forest School in cities often works with inner city settings adapting to the location and forest school has been run entirely on playgrounds, school playing fields, nursery gardens and even a private garden as well as parks, scraps of local woodlands which are open to the public and in the middle of urban areas and a dedicated forest school wood on a National Trust estate. In our experience and opinion, forest school can take place in any location and by prescribing rules for the location just narrows the number of children that are able to participate.

   ‘Outdoor settings such as woods and parks are fundamental to children’s physical, mental, emotional and social development. They can also be the location for positive and memorable lessons. Learning within a natural environment can stimulate children’s development by reducing mental fatigue and improving cognitive function.’ (Woodland Trust Jan 2007)

   Why is forest school important? There have been a number of important documents recently exploring outdoor education, but first it is necessary to recognise that all documentation takes into consideration the over arching document ‘Every Child matters’ 2003 which brought in a new approach to the well-being of children and young people from birth to age 19 with outcomes highlighted as : Be healthy ; Stay safe ; Enjoy and achieve through learning ; Make a positive contribution to society  and Achieve economic well-being. Following  consultation, the Government published Every Child Matters: the Next Steps, and passed the Children Act 2004, providing the legislative spine for developing more effective and accessible services focused around the needs of children, young people and families. Outdoor learning … “provides a powerful route to the ‘Every Child Matters’ outcomes, in particular enjoying and achieving, staying safe and being healthy” (DfES 2006 p.4)

   The ‘Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto’ 2006 states that “every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances.” It goes on to expand that “These, often the most memorable learning experiences, help us to make sense of the world around us by making links between feelings and learning. They stay with us into adulthood and affect our behaviour, lifestyle and work. They influence our values and the decisions we make. They allow us to transfer learning experienced outside to the classroom and visa versa.” (DfES 2006 p.1)

Tracey Maciver has run forest school sessions and courses and outdoor learning  sessions, courses and CPD for schools with a wide range of schools and groups from early years to adults, SEN to extension, promoting mental health to physical health, Gifted and Talented provision, Hearing and visual impairment, Family Focused sessions, bereaved families, young parents, dyspraxic children, autism awareness day, service families, sessions for those on drugs/alcohol rehabilitation programmes, disaffected young people as well as personal development.