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The benefits of Forest School

Can you feel it? Nature is on the rise. We need to protect our planet and live more sustainable lives. How can we create the conditions at Forest School for children to really enjoy the outdoors and forge their own connections to nature?

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The world is changing, and it starts with our children. Or put more aptly, it starts with us teaching our children. Forest School has an important role to play in connecting children to nature as we strive towards a sustainable future for all. And we're seeing an increasing understanding of how green and blue spaces aid our mental health. Green times need green minds.

Two girls climb a tree

Forest School Ethos

Forest School is a philosophy and a way of working with people in an outdoor environment. It’s not a specific place, it’s a methodology and an ethos. See our What is Forest School? article for more info but to summarise:

  1. It is an ethos that promotes self-esteem, creativity, confidence and independence.
  2. It is a series of long-term sessions that build on the needs and development of the child. It is not one-off days in the woods.
  3. It enables supported risk-taking, child-centred learning, exploration and play.
  4. It works in a variety of settings and is not exclusively based in schools. It doesn’t have to be in the woods.

 

It is the philosophy, not the physical environment that is essential to forest school. Woodlands provide an ideal learning environment because of their diversity, but it’s possible to apply the Forest School ethos to promote child-centred learning in other natural environments.

Forest School is a bold effort to bring an alternative form of education to the current situation: it is juxtaposed to the sedentary, academic, and increasingly technological dominant forms of education that we are used to. So what is Forest School education teaching the citizens of tomorrow?

 


Forest School done well, connects you to your spiritual understanding of the world. We know we are on a planet with finite resources and that we are connected to place. Being in the environment leads to becoming an environmentalist, and sometimes that word is used to mean you're a lefty tree hugger. But I like the word, put me down as an environmentalist. That’s because I believe that we should all breathe clean air and drink clean water and have our foods unpolluted. We want to call it out when we have a relationship with the outdoors.
Dr Mark Leather, Associate Professor of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning at Plymouth Marjon University

Good for the planet, good for the people

The main aim of Forest School is not to teach children about sustainability, green issues or how to be a better citizen for the year 2050. It’s about childhood, nature, and connection.

It brings children into contact with the natural environment in a time when contemporary concerns about risk and safety may otherwise limit their access to learn and roam in nature.

Before we toot Forest School’s horn too loud let’s provide some context. Forest School is relatively new; educational research on it is poorly funded and a child’s achievement is shaped by many different circumstances. It is after all, very hard for researchers to control all the variables that constitute a child’s healthy development. That being said, there is a huge body of scientific research showing the benefit of green and blue natural spaces for mental health and there is more research being done on childhood and natural spaces.

What do we know so far about the effects of forest school?

  • One study found the most common reason people in Norway and Kentucky chose an environmental career was because of positive experiences and connections to nature as a child.
  • Research in the UK into Forest School and its impacts on young children found positive impacts on children in terms of confidence, social skills, language and communication, motivation and concentration, physical skills and knowledge and understanding. 
  • 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.

It is argued that developing this relationship with nature early on (the earlier the better), might not only bring about positive results for children’s mental health but also impact their future, and how they act in relation to the environment.

As children are the future policymakers, it would seem appropriate to enable them to have positive experiences with the environment to inform better decision making in the future.

Creating conditions for inclusivity

Spending time in nature can promote healthy attitudes towards sustainability and Forest School can foster this connection. But is this likely to effect meaningful change if it’s not accessible for all sections of society?

After all, the outdoors isn’t accessible for all.  According to the Natural England’s The People and Nature Survey 2020 you are less likely to visit the outdoors if:

  • You are on a low income
  • You don’t have a degree
  • You are unemployed
  • You have a long-term illness
  • You are from an ethnic minority group

Inclusive forest school practice

Niky Elvy runs the Curious School of The Wild and is currently studying for her PhD with a focus on the outdoors and social exclusion with a focus on poverty and food. We asked Niky what aspiring Forest School teachers and outdoor practitioners can do to make the outdoors inclusive:


There is a massive lack of understanding of adolescents and teenagers. I think that it’s really hard for some outdoor leaders to understand that some choices that young people are making aren’t out of rebelliousness or trying to be difficult. They just might not have any other options.

"I think we have to be really careful about not being judgmental. I think the reasons why people wear what they wear outdoors if they don’t come from an outdoorsy family, actually makes perfect sense, and the reasons are really really complex. Lots of it has to do with social identity and social survival, and often that is wrapped up in what they can afford, and also what they feel confident about.

The outdoors isn't everybody's natural experience, not all families have that as a part of their day to day reality. So I think we have to be so careful about what we expect from young people.
Niky Elvy, Founder of Curious School of the Wild

Here are six principles for how to make Forest School accessible to more children:

1. The Forest School mantra “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” sounds good on paper, right? But what if you can’t afford high-quality outdoor kit? Wellies, waterproof trousers, coats, thermals, all these things come at a high price. If you can’t afford to put food on the table, providing waterproofs for your children isn’t going to be a reality. How can we ensure that every child has the gear they need to focus on the learning and not get distracted by the weather?

2. Providing food. Even when it’s free to attend outdoor events, food is often a barrier to participation if families must pay for it. Providing food for free ensures your sessions are inclusive.

3. Outdoor knowledge. Not all families have the opportunity to gain knowledge about the outdoors. Being judged for not knowing the names of plants or trees is going to exclude people.

4. Transport. Consider transport costs, these could stop families with a low income from accessing Forest Schools. Can you go to where participants are based or stay within walking distance of school?

5. Be careful of stigma. Inexperienced staff can sometimes judge participants for not having the right kit, outdoor knowledge or simply for what appears to be laziness. Surviving socially for young people is important. If their need to fit-in and be accepted by their peers is clashing with the aims of your outdoor session, don’t blame them. Spending time in the outdoors might be alien for them and it may take time before they feel comfortable. Keep talking to them, you’ll get there.

6. Procedures. Do your procedures mean that a person must identify themselves as experiencing poverty? Setting up routines and procedures to minimise poverty stigma is important. For example, asking for vouchers or filling in forms in front of other children or families can be damaging for children. Do you have systems in place to combat this?

Back to Niky Elvy who encourages us to think broadly about what outdoor education is and can be: “I don’t describe what I do as Forest School and there are lots of reasons for that. Many of our staff are Forest School trained and qualified. But actually, there are lots of things in the Forest School ethos, that don’t really fit with ours. For example, I'm quite happy for my outdoor work to also become curriculum-based if that's what's needed.  I've got a background in education and so that makes sense to me.

“We also actively don't stay in one setting. We are semi-nomadic. Even with our groups who might have a woodland base, we make sure that each time out, we go on a couple of trips to other environments too. Because you know, being in the woods all the time is great, but that does a very specific set of things and actually, we're trying to provide a bit more. 

“We want the children and young people who are with us, to understand different environments, not just woodlands. We go to the beach, we go on camps, we go and visit wetlands, and actually, we've even got on the train and gone to the museum. 

“We do a version of adventure education where we take young people out on expeditions and they learn how to navigate, they learn how to use a Trangia stove and then we hammock camp in the woods and they become familiar with a variety of wild environments."

So now we’ve considered what Forest School is and how we might get people to consider it, let’s think about the practical activities we can do to make memorable Forest School sessions for our learners.

Forest School is great for developing physical motor skills, self-confidence and an emotional awareness in the natural world. The activities in the forest can also be applied to the national curriculum, whether it’s understanding the properties of shapes, doing science practicals at the fire pit, or learning the meaning of words through woodland stories. The outdoors is in fact the perfect place to see how concepts learnt in the classroom can be applied to the outdoors.

It’s helpful to be aware that some practitioners prefer to keep the time spent in the woods specifically dedicated to the Forest School principals which don’t necessarily mean that you to stick to the national curriculum. This issue is contentious, with lots of different opinions!

Maths

3D shapes in nature - understanding the properties of shapes

You will need: Sticks, masking tape, leaves, twigs, other seasonally available resources.

Teaching: Ask the children to get into small groups. Explain to the children you are going to make 3D shapes out of natural things they find in the forest. Ask them if can name any 3D shapes (cube, cuboid, square-based pyramid, triangular prism etc). Using twigs or sticks and masking tape to demonstrate how to make a simple square. Allow children in their groups to choose a shape they want to make. Explain to them they going to turn their 3D shape into a house or hotel for insects and minibeasts. Let the children explore and give them time to locate their twigs and sticks. Once their shapes are complete, get them to fill them full of smaller twigs leaves and place them somewhere for the beasts to move in.

Outcomes: Identify and revise 3D shapes. Allow children to make choices and understand the different properties and parameters of shapes in the real world.


Sustainability lesson

Here are two ways to teach about sustainability at Forest School:

1. Is a rotting log dead?

By teaching the natural cycles of the earth you will inspire children to see the world differently. Point out a rotting log on the forest floor and explain how it’s home to a myriad of small beasties such as woodlice and centipedes, as well as fungi and things too small to even see such as bacteria. As they feed on this essential food supply, the soil is created, which in turn fosters life for more trees. Take away the rotting logs and there are no more alive trees. Nothing is wasted.

2. Celebrate the rain and teach community

Use rainy days as a reminder of how essential rain is to make the forest so green. Explain how light is essential too and remind them that trees are not only competing for light but also working as a team sharing nutrients we cannot see and acting as a community for other forms of life.


For more lesson ideas why not check out The Muddy Puddle Teacher?

Observing the child in Forest School

To understand if your Forest School sessions are effective you’ll want to observe the children over time. Start by establishing a baseline of their skills and what their next steps might be. You can then use this to plan for the subsequent sessions. Things to consider:

  • The child’s engagement with activities. Are they capable and enthusiastic? What skills are they demonstrating, or lacking? What is their attitude and concentration like?
  • The child’s wellbeing. Are they focused? Are they happy or feeling low? Do they want to be there or not? How do they express what they’re feeling? Are there moments of discomfort?
  • How does the child interact with others? Is the child considerate of their peers? Does the child lead or support others? Does the child disrupt the group?

Consider also how what you observe compares to what you see from this child in the classroom. You’ll start to understand which children thrive in the outdoors.


Connecting children to the natural world is important. People want to protect what they care about. If we can find ways to provide accessible connections to nature, then we step closer to achieving a healthy planet and an inclusive society.
@marjonuni

Forest School is an important part of the tapestry of outdoor learning and it’s ability to teach future generations about our most precious resource, the earth, is vital and needed.

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