Written by Isabel Lincoln
Forest school nurtures children and allows them to live in harmony with nature. It also helps with their learning and building relationships. This article shares some of the day to day life in forest school.
‘Forest School is a child-centered inspirational learning process that offers opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. It is a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting.’ (1)
It is a Monday morning in February 2022. The oaks and hornbeams of Highgate Woods are bare, their leaves have fallen and are covered in snow. The holly leaves are dark green and glossy, and the robins are active and flit from tree to tree. 3 adults and 12 toddlers wake up early and pull on a merino wool base layer. Then trackies, a fleece, a waterproof, and over the top of that, a puddle suit and wellies. They meet at Fairie Arch camp in Highgate Woods, and start walking. They play in the slushy snow and they climb trees and they throw stones into icy puddles and learn about the shapes that are made when they break the ice. They ask to go sledding and so we do. The children start off clinging to a grown-up and then grow brave and slide down the hills on their own. These 3 adults and 12 toddlers set up a ground tarp to sit on and a sky tarp above their heads to keep them dry and sit in the snowy woods to eat their lunch. This is Forest School.
Forest School is an alternative educational model. ‘Its roots reach back to the open-air culture, friluftsliv, or free air life, seen as a way of life in Scandinavia where Forest School began. It arrived in the UK in 1993 and has grown from strength to strength since then’ (1). Forest School is based on several guiding principles. It is the adherence to these principles that makes something ‘Forest School’, as opposed to more general outdoor education. The first principle is that it is a long-term process. Ideally, children will spend an entire year in the woods, observing and experiencing the transformation of the forest throughout all of the seasons. The second principle is that Forest School takes place in a woodland environment. Many Forest Schools across the world take place in a different form of natural environment; beaches, copses, parks, even school playgrounds. What matters is that there is an opportunity for children to interact with the natural world. Other principles include: the learning is child-led; the learning is holistic; the learning is supported by Forest School trained practitioners. The final, and perhaps most crucial principle, is that at Forest School ‘risk taking in a safe context is encouraged, enabling learners to move into their learning zones where they can manage their own risks, be they emotional, physical, cognitive or social’ (2).
There is an important distinction to make between risky play and dangerous play. At no point during a Forest School session are children in any danger. But at many points during a Forest School session the children are supported to take risks. In any risk-taking we meet children exactly where they are at, and ensure that they are ready for, and keen to move towards their next steps. This can look like a child who is terrified of climbing trees, practising clambering onto a stump, and jumping off, over and over, holding our hands. And then again, without needing to hold hands any more. It can be a child who is a confident tree climber, practising climbing up to 3 feet, then 4 feet, then 5 feet above our heads, once they have the skills to do so safely. This can look like handing a 3 year old a hammer and encouraging them to hit a billhook to split a log for firewood. Children show us in their own time, and their own ways, that they are ready to develop independence, balance, strength, and skill.
The great-grandfather, aged 8 in 1919, was able to walk 6 miles alone to go fishing. His son, aged 8 in 1950, could walk about a mile alone. His daughter could walk half a mile alone. And her son, aged 8 when this map was created in 2017, can walk only 300 yards to the end of his street. It goes without saying that urbanization has changed the landscape dramatically, both physically and socially. However this map reminds us of the stories our parents and grandparents tell us, about days spent in the wild, picking blackberries, fishing, playing, roaming. So often our favourite childhood memories are spent in nature, and so often, these memories have a quality of timelessness. Time passing unmarked, an entire summer holiday spent by a river, nowhere to get to, and no adults to hurry us along. It is this that is lost for contemporary children, and it is this that we can hand back to them, at Forest School.
Of course we know where the children are during our Forest School sessions, and we do not send them 6 miles down the road to go fishing! But by running child-led sessions, we can offer the children the opportunity to become deeply engrossed in the flow of play. For the children, being given autonomy over their time, and choices over what to do with it, has the direct result of building self-esteem.
Transformation at Forest School
In January, a little boy joined our Forest School Club. He was 4 years old. I will refer to him as M.
M was recommended to us after starting primary school, and promptly leaving it again. He struggled with sensory overload, and the intensity of sitting down all day in an over-stimulating environment. He used to run out of class screaming. He didn’t make friends, and came to believe that he couldn’t ‘do’ school. The school found it difficult to cope with him, and by Christmas he had left his reception class, refusing to go back.
When he arrived at Forest School, he was withdrawn and anxious. He wouldn’t sit with the group, and if we approached him he would run away, hit and spit. Over time, he would sit at the edge of camp at the base of an oak tree, and permit me to hover nearby. As we would sit there peacefully, we would spot birds and insects. He was incredibly observant, and began to learn their names. Still he felt uncomfortable in the group, and would only sit on the peripheries of the circle. A few sessions in we introduced him to the hammock, which he loved, and in which he could spend hours. He would stare at the leafy canopy and tell me ‘faster, faster!’ I spent hours with him, rocking him in the hammock, and slowly began to get to know him. After some time he would hold a butterfly identification guide in his hands and watch to see which butterflies flew by. He became calmer, and more trusting, and began to sit with the group during lunchtime.
One day we sat at the base of a cherry tree, and he spotted the resin seeping out and hardening. He asked about it, and I explained about resin, and about how it forms amber when compressed deep under the ground. I showed him my amber ring, and he said that he wanted to make one. The boy who had never entered the tool circle, never picked up a tool, felt the intrinsic motivation to walk across camp and pick up the tool bag. Having taken time to observe the other children, he knew exactly what to do. He used a small hack saw to remove a piece of resin. He used a bow saw to cut a disc of wood, and a palm drill to make a shallow hole inside it. He used wood glue to secure the resin to the disc, and tied a knot in the twine to tie it around his neck. He then showed the other children the source of the resin, and how to use the tools to make their own jewelry.
Over time I discovered that he was exceptional at maths – able to calculate the number of children in camp each day almost immediately. We saw him develop teamwork – whittling the bark from a length of hazel with another child, turning the log each time they’d completed one side. And I discovered the depth of his empathy the day that I sneezed, copiously, as the willow pollen blew across the woods. He asked me why I was sneezing, and I explained that it was allergies. He asked me, are you going to sneeze all day? He disappeared, and returned with a pocketful of tissues, saying: I think this will be enough for the whole day.
This is only one case study of many, that demonstrates the ways in which Forest School can be transformational for children in their developmental pathways. So often, children who struggle in a classroom come to believe that the problem lies with them, and that they simply cannot learn. Often these children are problematized and blamed, by teachers who are themselves struggling with a class of 30 children with diverse needs. When these children are offered an alternative learning space in which they are given the tools to self-regulate, the support to take risks, and the space to build their self-esteem, they come to discover that they are both able, and in fact love, to learn.
Post-pandemic: The potential of Forest School
Since the pandemic, teachers and Early Practitioners internationally have noted a significant rise in the number of children arriving at school with speech and language delays and social and emotional difficulties (4). For many, when access to school was limited to teaching online, and our access to the outdoors curbed to one walk per day, there was a deep realisation of how much we needed and valued both our learning communities, and our time in wild spaces. ‘Of more than 200 forest schools surveyed by the Forest School Association (FSA), about two-thirds said demand for their services had increased since March 2020.’(5). As part of this study, Forest School providers were asked why they believed that attendance had rocketed in this way. Amongst the reasons cited were ‘increased awareness of the benefits of the outdoors, especially in relation to stress and anxiety, Covid safety, and dissatisfaction with the school syllabus after months of pandemic homeschooling.’
In their discussion of Forest School as an alternative pedagogy, Goodenough and Waite consider the difficulties of integrating Forest School within the current English Education system; so often a system in which ‘children, parents and carers are positioned as customers, while progress is expected for all children and judged through outcomes rather than prescribed pedagogical approaches’ (6). In such a context, it is challenging to integrate Forest School, particularly as you travel up from Early Years into Primary and Secondary School. Indeed, it is the attempt to integrate Forest School that so often sees the dilution of the key principles; a creeping need to cover curriculum adds a pressure to the sessions that distracts from the core principle that the sessions are child-led. We must begin to consider which skills the children of today will require most in the coming years, and which educational methods can best give them the resilience, self-esteem and grounded-ness that they will need.
It is clear to me, from my time spent working in Forest Schools, that these spaces in which we are in community with one another, with the seasons, with the creatures of the forest and with the trees, offer children time and space to develop at their own pace. At Forest School, everything is relational. Children learn alongside their peers, they help friends who are still learning, and they develop in the areas that they individually need most. It is astonishing to observe children arrive in the forest in September, so quickly show us their needs, and then gravitate to their own developmental pathway to address those needs. When we give children the space to do so, they can lead their own learning. In this way, they discover an intrinsic motivation to learn, unfettered by praise or punishment, instead embracing learning for learning’s sake. For the children who experience this formative time in the woods, there will forever be a connection and a gratitude to the forest, giving these children the skills and the care to become the next generations’ environmental stewards.
- What is Forest School? | Forest School Association. Forest School Association. https://forestschoolassociation.org/what-is-forest-school/. Published 2022. Accessed August 24, 2022.
- Cree J, Robb M. The Essential Guide To Forest School And Nature Pedagogy. Routledge; 2021:16.
- Skenazy L. How Children Lost The Right To Roam. Freerangekids.com. https://www.freerangekids.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/how-children-lost-the-right-to-roam-map.jpg. Published 2022. Accessed August 24, 2022.
- Impact of COVID-19 on Early Childhood Education & Care. Post Parliament UK. https://post.parliament.uk/impact-of-covid-19-on-early-childhood-education-care/. Published 2021. Accessed August 24, 2022.
- Forest schools flourish as youngsters log off and learn from nature. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/oct/31/forest-schools-flourish-as-youngsters-log-off-and-learn-from-nature. Published 2021. Accessed August 24, 2022.
- Waite S, Goodenough A. What is different about Forest School? Creating a space for an alternative pedagogy in England. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education. 2018;21(1):25-44. doi:10.1007/s42322-017-0005-2