Fresh air, freedom and fun! Forest Schools add an extra dimension to formal education. Here’s what they’re all about and how to access them…
Forest Schooling is a holistic, inclusive, outdoor learning model which takes place over time, through practical, sensory, child-led sessions. Participants are well-supervised but given the freedom to choose activities, take risks and problem-solve at their own-pace. Depending on age and general group requirements, Forest School activities may include den-building, hammock-making, hide ‘n’ seek, tug of war, wood crafting, lighting a campfire (and if you’re lucky, maybe melting and eating chocolate and marshmallow s’mores!).
Forest Schooling as a UK entity was inspired by the Scandinavian ‘open air’ approach to early years learning: ‘friluftsliv’. It began in 1993, when a group of pre-school teachers from Bridgwater College in Somerset visited Denmark and returned enthused by the child-centred, ‘free-range’, outdoor learning ethos witnessed. Bridgwater offered a BTEC qualification in Forest Schooling two years later and with the help of Local Education Authorities, colleges, the Forestry Commission and the Open College Network; Forest Schools evolved. In 2012, the Forest School Association (FSA) was launched as the professional body – a charity with six core principles, which can be read about here.
Forest Schools predominantly cater to pre-school and primary-aged children. Many UK primary schools now offer a Forest School component alongside the curriculum – such as hosting a series of sessions over several weeks for a particular year group. Often this is facilitated by a teacher at the school who has completed the Forest School qualification.
There are also recognised centres throughout the UK that facilitate Forest Schools for visitors. These may be one-off sessions but are far more typically courses spanning a longer period, to enable students, such as home-educated children, to develop skills and confidence over time. Activity sessions occur in pretty much all weathers – hence appropriate clothing is required. The FSA has a list of recognised providers on their site, though an internet search will also yield local Forest Schools, or you could ask your Local Education Authority.
Recent research has shown that children growing up in 2022 are spending an hour a day less outside than their parents did at a similar age, but the rise of Forest Schools could play an important role in reversing this trend and reconnecting our children with nature. And aside from fresh air fun, participation benefits include: growth in confidence; learning to risk-assess and problem solve; acquiring resilience (A Forest School isn’t just for sunny days!); an increase in mental wellbeing and self-connection, team-work and engagement with the natural world.
The rise of Forest Schools is an important part of connecting our children with nature. An article in The Guardian (2021), which cites the head of the FSA, says demand for Forest Schools surged as a result of the pandemic, as their value was recognised in terms of child mental health, behaviour, confidence and Covid-safety (being held outside). They also balance out technology usage and inspire children to consider sustainability issues.
Deborah is a freelance writer with an appetite for travel, books and blue cheese. She has worked in colleges and universities in the UK and Australia and also resided in Hong Kong and the UAE. Deborah is a flexible learning enthusiast, who achieved her arts degree majoring in communications and sociology through distance learning.