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Forest Schools may seem like a fairly new concept in the UK, with the first one springing up in Devon in 1993. The first Forest School in the UK was inspired by the popularity and success of outdoor creative learning in Denmark and wider Scandinavia. Although Forest Schools continue to grow in popularity, there are currently only 108 certified Forest School practitioners in the UK. However, the extensive benefits of attending a Forest School have been widely reported around the world.
No longer limited to Scandinavia, Forest Schools have become increasingly popular around the world, in countries including the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Germany and Malaysia.
What is a Forest School?
A Forest School is an outdoor learning environment with a child-centred learning process that focuses on play, exploration and supported risk-taking. Both problem-solving and self-discovery are important features of Forest Schools. Encouraging children to learn through hands-on experiential learning in a natural setting helps to develop their confidence and self-esteem.
Forest Schools encourage children to be physically active. The variety of sessions and activities that are offered provide a host of learning experiences for the child. As well as the physical and educational benefits of attending a Forest School, the social and emotional development of the child are at the forefront of Forest School learning.
Forest Schools are not limited by planned activities. Forest Schools are designed to be child-led. This means children are encouraged to direct their own learning. Learning is unstructured and is led by the child’s own curiosity and interests. Practitioners may scaffold the children’s learning, meaning practitioners will offer support and guidance to children and young people as they learn or develop new skills.
A woodland or forest environment is key to the success of this type of learning. Stimulation of the senses is a key aspect of Forest Schools, with children encouraged to learn through visual stimuli, sounds, smells and tastes.
A Forest School offers a unique, holistic learning experience. They are most effective when attended long term. Forest School sessions should be attended regularly, with the recommendation being that children attend the sessions at least once or twice a fortnight for a minimum of a year.
Although Forest Schools are particularly popular with nursery and pre-school aged children, they can also be extremely beneficial to primary and secondary school children.
What are the ethos and principles in a Forest School?
Forest Schools focus on the social, emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual development of their learners. The nurturing environment encourages children to develop a positive relationship with the outdoor, natural world. The ethos of a Forest School is based on a fundamental respect for children and the encouragement of their curiosity in the world.
Forest Schools believe in:
- A child’s right to play.
- A child’s right to access the outdoors.
- A child’s right to access the natural world.
- A child’s right to experience a healthy range of emotions.
Forest Schools aim to build resilience to encourage a learner’s creative engagement with other people, their environment, and their own potential. They aim to encourage self-reflection and build strong social and emotional skills that will follow them into adulthood.
Forest Schools have six guiding principles. These principles are approved by the UK Forest School Community.
- A Forest School is a long-term process with regular sessions in a natural environment – Practitioners should aim for Forest Schools to take place regularly, with sessions occurring at least once every two weeks over an extended period of time. Ideally, the same group of learners should attend the sessions. Planning, adapting, observing and reviewing are integral. The structure of the programme should be based on collaboration between learners and practitioners. The progression of learning should be clearly demonstrated.
- The Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment – This helps to support the relationship between the learners and the natural world. If a woodland setting is not available, an environment with a small number of trees can still support good Forest School practice. The woodland environment should provide learners with the space and environment to explore and discover. Forest Schools should constantly monitor their ecological impact and help to develop long-term environmentally sustainable practices in learners, staff and the community.
- The Forest School should promote the holistic development of all those involved – Forest Schools should foster learners that are resilient, confident, independent and creative. Forest Schools should also aim to develop the physical, social, cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social and spiritual development of the learner. Learning and Forest School experiences should be linked to home, school, work and other life experiences where possible.
- The Forest School should encourage supported risk-taking – Experiences should follow a Risk-Benefit process that is managed by both the practitioner and the learner. Risk-taking can include physical, emotional and social risks. The Risk-Benefit process should be in line with the developmental stage of the learner. Activities should focus on overcoming risks, challenges or problems. Learners’ innate motivation and positive attitudes should be nurtured. If appropriate, Forest Schools can use tools, such as knives, or fires, in their activities. However, the activity must be appropriate to the learners and a risk assessment must be completed initially.
- Forest School practitioners are qualified – Forest School practitioners must meet certain criteria. All practitioners are required to hold a minimum of an accredited Level 3 Forest School qualification. Forest School assistants should hold a Level 2 qualification. Appropriate checks should be conducted, such as enhanced DBS checks, and practitioners need to hold up-to-date first aid qualifications. For more information about being a first-aider, consult our knowledge base. Additionally, there should be a high ratio of practitioners to learners. All practitioners should work reflectively and see themselves as learners who can adapt, change and grow. Forest Schools should also have the appropriate policies and procedures required to run the school and establish the roles and responsibilities of the staff. For more information on Forest School qualifications, visit the Forest School Association.
- The Forest School should be learner-centred and should create a community for learning and developing – The learner-centred approach should be responsive to the needs and interests of learners. Learning should be cooperative and should include teaching, observation, appropriate dialogue, relationship building and reflection. Reflection ensures that both learners and practitioners understand their achievements. It also helps to develop their emotional intelligence and their future planning. Play and choice are integral to learning and development and all learning preferences and dispositions should be considered. Each unique learner should be included in the learning system.
What are the benefits of a Forest School?
The benefits of a Forest School have long been reported by practitioners, parents and learners. The benefits are linked to the ethos and principles that guide Forest Schools. Research has been conducted into the benefits of Forest Schools and multiple studies have reported extensive benefits of attending a Forest School. Many of the benefits of Forest Schools are found to be long-lasting and can be applied to other aspects of a child’s life and even follow them into adulthood.
Some of the benefits include:
- An increase in self-belief – Learners are encouraged to assess risks themselves and decide when to take risks. Exploration, risk-taking and child-led learning can all result in improved self-belief. Learners and practitioners are encouraged to reflect to understand their achievements and learn from their failures.
- An increase in confidence – The encouraged risk-taking, access to the natural world, learner-led experiences and learning through play can all result in increased confidence.
- Improved problem-solving skills – Learners learn how to assess problems and make their own decision about the best way to solve the problem. Learners become more independent problem solvers.
- Communication skills – This includes further development of language skills. Forest Schools encourage sensory experiences, scaffolding from practitioners, the use of appropriate dialogue and collaborative work, which can all help to improve a learner’s communication skills.
- An increase in motivation and concentration – Young learners often find concentration difficult. However, Forest School activities are designed to be interesting and engaging. Learning through play and child-led learning results in higher levels of interest, which in turn improves a learner’s attention and concentration. Learners are more likely to concentrate over a longer period of time.
- The development of physical skills and motor skills – Many Forest School activities will help to improve a learner’s fine and gross motor skills. Outdoor activities may also focus on a variety of other physical skills such as balancing, climbing and sensory skills.
- Promotes emotional intelligence – Emotional intelligence includes self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy and motivation. Good emotional intelligence enables children and young people to identify and manage their own and other people’s emotions.
- Focus on physical health – Forest School learners are usually more physically active than learners in a more traditional school setting. Parents of Forest School learners often report that their child’s interest in woodland settings and the outside world transcends into their home life. This means children may also be more likely to be physically active at home.
- Builds resilience – Learners are taught how to cope with stressful or negative situations. Not only can nature and the outdoors reduce stress, but children are also taught how to overcome obstacles and reflect on their experiences.
Additional benefits of attending a Forest School include:
- Achieve personal and social development.
- Learning about the natural environment.
- Learning problem-solving skills.
- Building positive relationships.
- Improving communication skills.
- Encourages emotional wellbeing.
- Improves the capacity of learning.
- Encourages children to have a positive impact on the environment and to respect and care for the natural world.
Forest School activities
As Forest Schools are learner-led, there is no set programme for activities and activities can vary from group to group. Practitioners will consider the interests of the learners, their learning styles and the type of activities that are likely to be particularly beneficial to the group. Although activities are centred around play, every activity will provide a learning opportunity.
Forest School activities usually fall into the following categories:
- Art and creative activities – This could include using natural products such as leaves, sticks and mud for artwork. Learners could also make their own paint or dyes.
- Growing plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables.
- Bush craft and survival activities – This could include building shelters and foraging.
- Use of tools – Learners could use tools such as knives, hammers, saws or fire.
- Outdoor curriculum – This could be outdoor activities designed around English, Science or Mathematics.
- Outdoor food – For example, foraging and cooking on campfires.
- Outdoor play – This could include a mud kitchen and den building.
- Treasure hunts and trails.
- Memory activities.
- Tree activities – This could include discovering the height and age of the tree, building a bird’s nest, identifying tree species, and decorating trees.
- Animal activities – This could include identifying insects, creating habitats, animal tracking, bird surveys.
- Sensory activities – Activities that focus on some or all of the five senses.
Who is a Forest School suitable for?
Forest Schools are suitable for children and young people of all ages. Young children can begin attending a forest nursery or pre-school from the age of 2. Forest School programmes are available up to the age of 18. Children and young people of all ages and backgrounds can benefit from attending a Forest School.
A Forest School can be particularly beneficial to those who struggle in a traditional classroom environment.
This could include:
Children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN).
Forest Schools have also been found to be beneficial to children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN). This could include those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), behavioural difficulties, dyslexia and dyspraxia.
Forest Schools are multi-sensory and can help improve concentration and the motivation to learn. Forest Schools can help children with learning disabilities or additional needs to gain more independence and self-confidence, reduce anxiety, build resilience, and improve their communication skills. For more information about ADHD and other Special Educational Needs, consult our knowledge base.
Children and young people who require additional interventions.
Forest School programmes have been found to be particularly successful as a strategy for intervention. This could be for children who experience behavioural difficulties. Interventions may also be recommended for students who are socially or economically disadvantaged. Being in a non-traditional setting with unstructured, child-led learning can be extremely beneficial to students requiring interventions.
How to get involved in Forest Schools
As mentioned earlier, there are currently only 108 certified Forest School practitioners in the UK. If you are interested in sending your child to a Forest School, it is important to check their endorsement and qualifications. To find out if there are any certified Forest Schools in your area, you can search online. Ensure you speak to the school’s lead practitioner to check the school is endorsed by the Forest School Association. Alternatively, you can check on the Forest School Association website.
If you want to be more involved in a Forest School, you will first need to gain a Forest School qualification.
There are three different Forest School qualification levels:
This is an introduction to Forest Schools. You will learn about the six principles of Forest Schools and general practice. Those with a Level 1 certification will not be able to lead a group but will be able to work as a volunteer at a Forest School. To qualify for a Level 1 training course, you must be at least 16 years of age.
A Forest School assistant will require a Level 2 qualification. With this qualification, you will be able to take a more proactive role and help a fully qualified practitioner plan and deliver the programme. You will also be able to support learners. To qualify for a Level 2 training course, you must be at least 18 years of age and have previous experience working with children or young people.
This qualification is designed for those who want to lead a Forest School group. This qualification teaches you how to facilitate learner-centred learning and how to manage a Forest School sustainably. You will also learn all the practical skills required of a Forest School practitioner. Level 3 qualifications teach you how to develop, lead and manage Forest School programmes.
To qualify for a Level 3 training course you must be at least 21 years of age and have a Level 2 qualification or equivalent. This could include being qualified as a teacher, youth worker or support worker. You will also need extensive experience working with children or young people.
All three qualification levels will require candidates to have an enhanced DBS check. For more information on DBS checks, visit GOV.UK. You may also be required to have a valid first-aid certificate.