Forest School is a child-centred learning process, providing learner inspired, hands-on experiences in the natural environment. It’s creative and can increase a child’s confidence as they problem-solve and learn to manage risks.
Forest School encourages children to explore the natural environment and learn in it. But what exactly is it? How is it done? What does it take to become a trained leader?
Here we’ll introduce you to the concept of Forest School, explore the common questions, and give you solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing Forest School practitioners today.
"If done well, every individual will take away something different from Forest School. It will enable them to have agency to build relationships. To commune with human and non-human, to have agency to find that connection from within. Forest School is about connection, agency and communion."
Jon Cree, Director of the Forest School Association UK
First let’s look at the key characteristics of Forest School:
Check out the full list of principles on the Forest School Association website.
Forest School comes from Scandinavia. It was developed from the philosophy of friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv). This translates to “open air living”. Concepts such as wild swimming, green prescriptions for mental health and cycling to work have been embedded in Scandinavian culture for a long time. They live and breathe open air living. The philosophy of ‘friluftsliv’ goes deep; it offers a spiritual view, one that is connected to the earth.
There is no restriction on the use of the term Forest School and so some of what is badged as Forest School in the UK isn’t truly Forest School, at least not in the Scandinavian sense. Dr Mark Leather, Associate Professor of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning at Plymouth Marjon University explains: “While Forest School makes a very positive contribution to outdoor education, the commodification of it in the UK has created problems. Sometimes it is done brilliantly but sometimes not, and there is a tendency to make claims for the benefits that overreach the available evidence.”
Whilst being different to the formal education system, Forest School can be used to deliver the curriculum and it’s not an add-on. Dr Mark Leather continues: “I trained as a secondary school science teacher and I still teach science, I just do so outdoors. You know, I just happen to be talking about the laws of motion when sitting in a canoe, or the thermal properties of energy transfer when we're sitting around a fire cooking. You can take many things and teach them in a Forest School setting.
"So how do we bring the outdoors into the education systems that are in place? In primary schools we're seeing a lot more outdoor education, exploring numeracy, literacy and science by utilising authentic outdoor experiences. But in some ways, the secondary school curriculum looks very much like a school curriculum of yesteryear. How do we change that? The idea of going off on adventures is very much within the British DNA, and that the outdoors is somehow good for you.”
Due to the popularity of Forest School in the UK and further afield, accreditation is now recognised as important to embed the core principles of Forest School in its leaders.
There are three levels of accreditation each varying in price.
Forest School has to be run by at least one level 3 Forest School leader together with one other adult (they can be trained in Forest School or not). If you’re a qualified teacher then you have a level 6 or 7 qualification so you don't need a level 3 qualification too. But you need to be able to manage the risks.
Check out this article from the Forest School Association outlining the questions you need to ask your training provider to ensure they are reputable. You can also search their online data base for registered and endorsed Forest School training providers. Or to study Forest School at university level study check out our BA (Hons) Outdoor Adventure Education or BA (Hons) Primary Education.
An important part of any Forest School is the longevity and consistency of its group dynamics. The identity of the group is just as important as the identity of the individuals. The group includes adults as well as children. It’s not ideal when the group is disturbed, and the participants change. As soon as you lose a member, the feeling and atmosphere of the group can change.
Mark Sackville-Ford in the book ‘Critical Issues In Forest School’ suggests: “Where a child leaves a school, rather replace this ‘space’ with another child I suggest that you leave the space as vacant. Otherwise, you will reset the project and therefore the potential gains from the project can be diminished”. This might seem counter-intuitive because of the desire to provide Forest School to as many children as possible, but the importance of group dynamics in this kind of social education shouldn’t be underestimated.
Encouraging and managing risk-taking is also important if you want to provide consistency and create an environment where children feel free to explore.
Here are six managed risk activities that children may encounter at Forest School:
Within all these activities there is a degree of risk. The three questions you need to ask yourself are: What are the risks? What are the benefits? How can we make it safer?
To ensure you are providing in-depth learning, you are adhering to child protection laws, and that you are facilitating a safe session, it’s important you don’t work alone. You must work with at least one other adult. They can be Forest School trained or not, for example, they could be a competent adult such as a parent, teacher, or volunteer who hasn’t received Forest School training but will be on hand and able to respond to emergencies. Small groups with a high staff ratio are needed to ensure quality learning, at least 1 adult to at most 5 children is something to aim for with young children.
The process of reflective observation is crucial in Forest School, both for the leaders and the learners. Observations happen over many sessions, and change can happen slowly for the learners. Allow the process to unfold and grow; like any other process in the natural world, it needs time and care.
Yes, they do. Practices like Forest School have long recognised the importance of play. It is essential for the healthy development of a child’s brain. It enables problem-solving, builds confidence and resilience and contributes to a range of emotional, cognitive, physical and emotional developments.
This is often the aspect of Forest School that can come into conflict with traditional views on teaching. Children spend much of their lives being transported from one activity or pursuit to another; school, clubs, classes, trips. It’s important that they develop the social and emotional skills to negotiate their own actions. Play is the place this happens; the more uninterrupted by adults the better.
Practices like Forest School facilitate children’s play, they don’t teach it. This process requires trust. This leads us to the question: Do you believe in the power, creativity and agency of children?
Children’s agency, which is their ability to act independently and make choices, is a human right. As The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states: “Every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.” (Article 31).
Without agency, we are not encouraging resilient future generations. Given the opportunity, children can and will learn to develop mature responses to challenging situations. When children are uninterrupted in their play, they learn to negotiate boundaries. Forest School facilitators are there to support the child’s exploration, but their main job is to create the framework the child freely builds upon.
It’s said that 9 out of 10 Brits will have talked about the weather in the last six hours. This is thought to be because some features of UK geography make for changeable and unpredictable weather.
Dr Mark Leather provokes practical questions for Forest School facilitators: “There is a mantra in Forest School which goes ‘there is no such thing as bad weather just bad clothes’. I agree with that if it challenges the British stereotype that you can’t go out if there’s a bit of rain. Let you tell you though, there is such a thing as bad weather.
“I ask the question to my students: ‘Why are you here?’ What are we trying to achieve?’. We are not trying to make people unhappy or scared, so go you’ve got to be equipped for all weathers.”
One of the strengths of Forest School is that it is embedded in core principles that make it distinct and different from other forms of outdoors learning. Its ability to have a long-term and sustained impact on children and young people makes it an effective approach. However, being critical of the way Forest School is done will also empower leaders to create better Forest School experiences.
Tree climbing is rarely allowed for children during school hours. The risk of falling could be severe. However, tree climbing is one of the most rewarding and engaging experiences in the natural world. Some children will feel empowered if they are given agency to do something that is usually forbidden.
To manage the risks associated with tree climbing make sure you:
The outdoors is ever-changing so reassess the tree everyone you go back to climb it. Are the branches intact? Is it dying? Is there fungus or rot? Is it too wet and slippery for climbing today?
"Climbing trees and falling out of them is all part of growing up and having small injuries helps children learn about risks. We take the view that it’s a good thing to try to equip children and young people and help them make informed decisions about the risks that they take.”
Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)
Forest School may come into conflict with the aims and objectives of any given school. The fact that there are no set objectives and outcomes at Forest School is an alternative to much classroom learning.
Let’s explore the main challenges:
1. Pressure to make Forest School accountable for how it is directly impacting the child.
Schools are under pressure to hit targets and achieve high ratings and that trickles down from the top. Being aware that this is an issue is important in creating a cohesive community and culture between the Forest School setting and the wider school or educational setting.
2. The expectation that this learning will be documented and evidenced.
Some aspects of learning are incredibly hard to quantify. For instance, it’s hard to evidence the progression of a child’s emotional literacy or feelings of being connected to a wider world. Be ready and able to articulate how the group dynamics and the outdoors make an effective environment for this social and emotional development.
3. Expectations that children’s learning should be linked to the curriculum.
There are numerous ways to teach Maths, Science, English and many other aspects of the curriculum through outdoor learning. The practitioner must try to strike a balance between the expectation that Forest School needs to incorporate the national curriculum and the very philosophy of ‘friluftsliv’ that underpins authentic Forest School experiences.
4. Clash of approaches between practitioners concerned with safety versus agency of the child.
Other Forest School practitioners may not be fully committed to the ‘friluftsliv’ philosophy of Forest School. For some, risk-taking may not be fully embraced or understood. Finding a mutual and non-judgmental approach between team members is key and making time to discuss your different approaches will lead to deeper understanding.
5. Forest School becoming a brand and it becoming diluted.
As Forest School becomes more desirable and popular it risks being used tokenistically to promote schools. Be savvy and research your training providers and settings.
The challenges are worth it. As children connect physically, practically and emotionally to the natural world, unexpected and delightful changes can occur. Previously ‘quiet’ children have been shown to improve their confidence in communication, speaking out about their boundaries and feelings. Similarly, children who were ‘un-cooperative’ in the classroom setting have been shown to learn the value of sharing and working as a team.
Every child should have the right to experience the quiet of the forest, the satisfaction of finishing a practical project, the sturdiness of branches as they hold their weight off the ground, the smell of autumn leaves turning into next year’s soil, the crackle of the fire.
Some children may go on to develop a life-long relationship with the outdoors, influence their parent’s relationship to the outdoors, develop practical skills and potentially go on to have careers in conservation. But regardless of the effects Forest School has on the world, the child is and should continue to be at the centre.