Many adults over a certain age (about 50, but shh, don’t tell anyone)….fondly remember their childhood as one lived mostly outdoors - making mud pies, climbing trees and being allowed to play in the woods for hours until they were called in for dinner when the sun went down. They made dens, knew that dock leaves could relieve the pain from stinging nettles and occasionally, yes, made a campfire.
It seems a distant cry from the common perception of many of today’s children, branded as unable to tear themselves away from their electronic devices long enough to even sit at a table for a meal, and the term ‘Nature-Deficit Disorder’ is now being applied to many of today’s youngsters who spend less and less time outdoors.
Perhaps this is why there has been an explosion in Forest Schools in the UK over the last few decades, since Forest Schools could be seen as an antidote to the electronic age – a place where children are free again to be children and to drive their own agendas; to learn and explore in an environment that is challenging, but risk-assessed for safety; and about as far away from a SATs test as you could possibly be!
But how much do you really know and understand about what they are, and why they are growing in popularity?
What is a Forest School?
Being a Forest School is not a marketing gimmick – it is an ethos around a way of learning that stems from Scandinavia, with a focus on outdoor learning that is child-centred, play-based and delivered regularly over a long period of time, rather than as a one-off session in a woodland.
The main principles behind a Forest School involve:
Use of a woodland setting. Due to the nature of woodlands, there are strict safety routines that are adhered to, and rules to keep the children safe, however, it allows for controlled risk-taking and child-initiated learning.
A high adult/child ratio. This allows children to be kept safe as they learn and undertake activities, many of which take place in one-to-one scenarios.
The freedom to learn using multiple senses. This means that all the senses are invoked whilst doing Forest School, encouraging “creative, diverse and imaginative play” fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
Regular sessions over a significant period of time. This means at least one morning, afternoon or day per week or at least once a fortnight, for a period of between 2 and 12 months. This gives children the opportunity to work in teams, achieve and learn responsibility and experience a variety of different activities over time.
Run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice. Leaders must be Level 3-qualified and most have at least 2 years’ experience of working on projects.
The curriculum is not pre-set but child-led, although it can easily cover aspects of the EYFS and often includes making dens and campfires, working in teams or with tools, whittling spoons and learning about nature.
History of Forest Schools
Forest Schools were introduced in the UK during the early 1990s from Denmark and developed into a distinct UK model, pioneered by Bridgwater College in Somerset after their staff visited some Danish nurseries and witnessed the Forest School ethos in practice. In 1995, the college started offering Forest School training courses and estimates they have trained approximately 10,000 early years practitioners. Nowadays, there are Forest Schools all over the country and in 2012, The Forest School Association was set up as an independent UK body representing them. It provides guidance and a platform to share best practice, as well as a collective voice at a national and international level.
Benefits of Forest Schools
If you’ve ever taking children out of their conventional classrooms to explore the world in other ways, then you will know that there are many benefits to getting outdoors and focusing on achieving different outcomes using different skills. Many children who struggle in mainstream environments, often thrive in a more practical learning space, where a more holistic approach to learning can occur.
Some of the benefits of Forest Schools have been identified in a study by Forestry Research. These include helping children develop:
- Social skills
- Language and communication
- Motivation and concentration
- Physical skills
- Knowledge of the environment
- New perspectives
In addition, many children were found to have brought their Forest School experiences home, asking parents and carers to take them outdoors at the weekend and in the holidays.
Forest School Kindergartens
Forest Schools started in the UK after a visit to a Danish nursery and therefore they are not restricted to primary and secondary school-aged children. In fact, they are perfect for engaging younger children in the learning process and Forest School Kindergartens are becoming more popular. You can learn more about kindergartens at forestschoolskindergarten.com or the main Forest School site at forestschools.com and The Forest Schools Association on forestschoolassociation.org.
How can you set up a Forest School?
- There are a few things you will need to be able to run as an official Forest School:Identify that this is something you want to do and talk to your colleagues and managers/staff about it. You will need to agree on the goals you are setting yourselves and your children and how you think becoming a Forest School will help. Remember, that running Forest School sessions is a long-term commitment which is different from just taking a walk in the woods occasionally.
- Undertake training to become a qualified Level 3 practitioner or hire one of the many Level 3-qualified professionals who are already trained to lead your sessions.
- You must have access to a woodland environment and permission to engage in regular sessions there.
- You need helpers. Part of the ethos of Forest Schools in a high child/adult ratio, so you will need to have helpers who can undertake either the Level 1 or Level 2 training in order to help.