What is forest school?
A forest school focuses on learning from (and in!) the natural environment, usually a forest! They are fast becoming incredibly popular for all ages around the UK, allowing children to step into a magical realm of lush greenery. Referred to as outdoor or environmental education, the idea behind the approach is to allow children to learn through experience, by direct engagement with nature, or by creating things with natural materials such as sticks and leaves.
A brief history of forest schools
Although the concept may seem like a new thing, according to the Forest School Association, its roots go way back to when philosophers, naturalists and educators - including Wordsworth, Ruskin and Baden Powell - laid the foundations in the 1900s.
In fact, the world's first known forest school was created in Denmark in 1952, when local parents formed a group and created "walking kindergartens", with adults as facilitators not teachers. These facilities became more commonplace in Denmark in the 1950s, with open air classrooms supplementing indoor learning spaces.
In the 1990s, visitors to Denmark brought back news of their open air culture (‘Friluftsliv’) and its influence on early years education - and soon forest schools were being offered around the UK. There’s been a further boost in the number of activities based on the forest school concept since the recent pandemic - with natural, outdoor environments viewed as more Covid-friendly than a typical classroom setting.
What happens at a forest school?
Children who attend forest school are encouraged to explore their natural surroundings. A class allows children to play, explore, create and wander in the outdoors. The philosophy is that everything is child-led, so there’s not always a set activity or agenda - teachers will follow the interests and abilities of the children.
Forest schools are naturally hands-on, so there will be plenty of opportunities for kids to explore nature with their sense of touch and sight. Activities are likely to include things like splashing in puddles, kicking up leaves, making mud pies, looking for worms, den building, painting on leaves or crafting with sticks. If there’s a sufficient child-adult ratio, positive risk taking is also encouraged, which means activities might include tree climbing, lighting fires, outdoor cooking, and using tools.
The main benefits of forest schools
The main ethos of forest schools is to promote self-esteem, creativity, confidence and independence. An important point to remember about forest schools is that they are meant to complement traditional learning rather than replace it. Because the lessons take place out in the open, it's common to hear the sounds of trees rustling in the wind and birds chirping. These calming sounds make for an excellent learning environment for young minds and provide great sensory input. Plymouth Marjon University says that research into forest schools found positive impacts on children in terms of confidence, social skills, language and communication, motivation and concentration, physical skills and knowledge and understanding. In addition, a study that investigated life stress and rural children discovered that children who had significant, direct contact with the natural world were better able to deal with stresses in daily life compared to those who hadn’t. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) took the research a step further, evaluating two schools to look at how they support learning opportunities for children who typically do not do as well in the classroom. Their findings suggest forest schools can aid development in a variety of ways.
How do Forest Schools aid development?
The studies above showed that Forest schools can aid children's development in a variety of ways, allowing them to develop in many ways that influence other areas of their life.
How do Forest Schools help confidence?
Children in Forest Schools had the freedom, time and space to learn and demonstrate independence, leading to an increased sense of confidence. H3: How do Forest Schools support social skills? Children in Forest Schools gained increased awareness of the consequences of their actions on peers through team activities such as sharing tools and participating in play.
How do Forest Schools help communication?
The vast variety of sensory experiences that children have in Forest School can help aid language development by allowing them to describe environments that they may have otherwise not have experienced.
How can Forest Schools develop motivation?
Being in the woodland environment tended to fascinate the children and they developed a keenness to participate and the ability to concentrate over longer periods of time.
How do Forest Schools help develop physical skills?
Children in Forest Schools showed developments in physical skills by having an increased development of physical stamina and gross and fine motor skills.
How do Forest Schools increase knowledge and understanding?
When the children were within the Forest School surroundings they developed an interest in nature and respect for the environment.
Learning aside, just being out in the fresh air has its own, not insignificant, benefits. From boosting digestion and improving blood pressure, to strengthening our immune systems and even increasing serotonin (the happy hormone).
What should I look for?
It might sound silly, but the first thing to check is that your chosen forest school does actually take place outside in the natural environment. This can include anywhere outdoors, but ideally an open space that is home to trees and wildlife. Make sure that the teacher/facilitator lets the kids lead the class by focussing on their strengths, weaknesses and interests. They should also be someone who is happy to encourage children to take supported risks - this might be exploring, climbing or jumping in muddy puddles! Ideally, you’ll also want to check that they are qualified forest school practitioners, as well as the usual DBS and First aid training you’d expect from anyone working with children.
What is a Forest School leader?
A Forest School leader is the teacher in the Forest School environment, they should be specially trained in Forest School teaching and have at least a level 3 qualification as a forest school practitioner.
Do Forest Schools follow the national curriculum?
Forest Schools don't have to follow the national curriculum, they prioritise practical skills over comprehensive academic coverage. Nevertheless, leaders will still incorporate subjects aligned with the national curriculum, such as weather, seasons, plant life, and minibeasts, into their teachings.
Where can I find a forest school near me?
Finding a forest school near you is easy. Simply check out our list of suppliers, which can be filtered by location and age, to find a forest school close to home. If we don't currently have a supplier in your area, then let us know, or check back soon. Our team is constantly adding new suppliers to make sure that Pebble helps you to find children’s activities near home. Just remember, depending on the time of year, waterproofs and wellies are a must!