Forest School, Education Through Nature

Written by Shayle Follows

Forest School is becoming more popular, but many people need to be aware of the many wonders of Forest School and how much they can do for their children and themselves. So let us answer all your questions about Forest School.

A Forest School is a long-term outdoor activity host. You can attend a Forest School several times yearly rather than just going once or twice. As a result, you will build up outdoor skills and get used to spending time in more natural outdoor areas. This article will teach you all you need to know about Forest School.

What is Forest School?

The Forest School approach emphasises the benefits of learning in natural settings, where children can engage in hands-on experiences and learn through play, exploration, and discovery. Forest School sessions typically occur in woodlands, parks, or other natural areas and may involve fire-building, shelter-building, nature walks, and games.

Forest School aims to foster a love of nature and promote physical, social, emotional, and intellectual development. It is often used as a supplement to traditional classroom learning, providing an alternative and complementary approach to education. Forest School programs may be run by schools, community organisations, or independent providers and offered regularly or occasionally.

Forest School Setting

Many Forest Schools operate in the UK; activities are run for children from early years upwards. They allow young children to participate in physical activity while learning about nature. A Forest School is not the only way to educate people about nature and get them back to the outdoors; it’s just a safe and regulated way for people, especially children, to get involved.

Where did Forest School originate

Forest School originated in Scandinavia in the 1950s to connect children with nature and promote their development through outdoor learning experiences. The idea was initially developed by Danish early years educator Ella Flatau, who observed that children who spent time in nature were happier, healthier, and more confident than those who did not.

The Forest School concept was later adopted and further developed by Swedish educators, who began offering children outdoor programs based on Flatau’s ideas. These programs focused on developing children’s resilience, creativity, and independence through den-building, fire-making, and exploring the natural environment.

The Forest School approach gradually spread to other countries, including the UK and USA, where it has gained popularity in providing children with opportunities to connect with nature, develop new skills, and build confidence and self-esteem.

Six principles of the Forest School Ethos

These six principles were all agreed upon by the UK Forest School Community. They are guiding principles to help leaders apply good practices when using the Forest School programmes they develop.

Using a compass at Forest School

Principle 1: A Forest School involves a sustained approach with regular sessions in a natural setting, like a forest or woodland, rather than a one-time occurrence. The Forest School leader plays a crucial role in designing, modifying, and assessing the different aspects of their Forest School activities.

Principle 2:  A Forest School takes place in a natural wooded environment, where possible, to support the development of the relationship between attending children and nature.

Principle 3: A Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all involved, encouraging and promoting resilience, confidence, creativity, and independence (among many other skills).

Principle 4: A Forest School allows children to take supported risks related to their environment and themselves. Risk management is a necessary part of learning outdoors.

Principle 5:  A Forest School should be run by qualified Forest School practitioners/leaders who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice. Qualifications are available from level one to level four for those interested in running a Forest School programme.

Principle 6: A Forest School uses various processes catered to the children attending the programme. This enables Forest School leaders to create a community for the development of their children.

Forest School in School settings

Forest School leaders prioritise the safety and enjoyment of the children attending their activities, working closely with schools and parents to ensure a positive experience. If a school starts a Forest School, the activity host will adhere to their rules, regulations, and specialised guidelines.

Taking children out of the classroom provides a unique learning experience that combines education and nature. Forest School activities incorporate art, P.E., and science elements, allowing children to be creative and learn at their own pace in a secure and regulated environment.

The space where Forest School activities take place is a blank canvas that children can make their own through the games and activities provided by Forest School leaders. A Forest School offers children the opportunity to be themselves while learning.

If parents are concerned about their child being in a forest or campground, Forest School in a formal school location is a great option. A Forest School provides an exciting and beneficial way for schools to nurture children, allowing them to explore the world and discover new ideas.

Den building

Is there a set Forest School curriculum?

A Forest School has no specific curriculum they must follow, leading many parents and schools to question whether it is necessary. While practitioners may incorporate aspects of the early-year curriculum when working in a school setting, no formal Forest School curriculum must be followed. 

A Forest School is better understood as a learning approach or ethos. Forest School leaders use natural environments to guide children’s learning experiences. Forest schools offer a unique and effective way for children to learn, and there are many benefits associated with this approach.

How long is a Forest School session?

Most Forest School sessions are short one-day or afternoon workshops, but some have taken to hosting weekends or longer. It depends on the kind of Forest School you are looking for and what the hosting company can offer.

Benefits of Forest School

A Forest School provides numerous benefits for children still learning and growing daily. There are ways to make being outside more than just fun. Being outdoors can be educational. It can be enthralling and awe-inspiring.

A Forest School can:

Build independence: A Forest School leader oversees the children they’re looking after and helps them build on their independence by pushing them towards solutions they figure out. From building dens and tents of sticks to learning how to navigate with a compass and read a map, children attending Forest School workshops pick up fun but vital skills. Some skills may seem survivalist, but they’re helping children become more creative and build their independence by allowing them time to develop solutions.

Enable understanding of empathy:  A Forest School encourages children to feel their emotions and to understand how they feel when they observe something. A Forest School workshop ensures that children work in groups and understand the values and necessities of teamwork. In addition, natural settings help people bond, removing the classroom competition and introducing the concept of caring for each other and the world around them.

Improve physical activity: One of the most apparent benefits is how much physical activity and exercise children do during Forest School. They run, they climb, and they leap over logs. It’s more than a P.E. class; it’s fun and fitness in a way children don’t often experience.

Improve mental health: Children are under a lot of pressure, and many studies link being outside in nature with better mental health. 

Build safety awareness: Forest School adventures are fully controlled and safe. Forest School leaders encourage children to assess risks and seek help if they need it. Unpredictable situations will always exist, but they have adult help to understand how best to deal with that situation and come up with a solution.

Promote communication: Last on our list of benefits is communication. Not only do Forest School activities promote teamwork, but they also promote communication. With communication, tasks can easily succeed or be properly completed. No child gets left out of their team because they all know they need to work together to complete the activity they’ve been set to do.

Become qualified to run a Forest School

It is important to choose a Forest School trainer who offers an FSA-recognised qualification if you or your setting may wish to become an FSA Recognised Forest School Provider in the future. You can find a list of Awarding Organisations currently supported by the FSA and their qualifications on the FSA website.

When choosing a Forest School trainer, it is advisable to research different trainers carefully. This can involve exploring their websites and social media profiles and conversing with a few trainers before deciding. Different trainers may have different approaches to training, and some may have more experience working with certain client groups than others. Ultimately, finding a trainer who fits your needs and goals as a Forest School practitioner is essential.

Typically, most courses run from level one to level three. Those are the only levels needed to be qualified as a Forest School leader/practitioner officially; however, some do run up to level 4.

Forest school for kids

4 easy Forest School activities to get started

Forest School activities don’t have to stay in a school setting. You can summon fairies with magic wands, shelter from the rain in your den, and invite guests to your bug hotel from as far as your back garden. We have chosen 4 easy Forest School activities to get you started.

1. Build a bug hotel 

Children should be encouraged to build a small structure for the bug hotel using planks of wood, sticks, leaves, etc. The idea is to create an insect-friendly home with amenities that interest our crawly friends. Children may want to add cardboard tubes, shredded paper, and small food sources like fresh leaves. It’s a small and creative activity requiring little expense and preparation.

2. Build natural towers

Encourage children to make a tower from natural materials like stones, pebbles, logs, and sticks. First, they’ll need to create a structure without assistance, likely including a solid base or foundation. Then, if the groups manage to make a tower, their next task could be to see if they can change the tower without it all collapsing. The natural towers activity is great for teamwork, communication, fine motor skills, concentration, and hand-eye coordination. In addition, it has no cost and minimal set-up because it’s more fun to let the children find the materials themselves.

3. Building a shelter/den

When setting up the shelter/den building exercise, choose an area with many long sticks on the ground and large leaves. You may need to provide some string or other essential supplies, but ultimately, the children should be able to build a shelter using mostly natural materials. Please encourage them to use trees to help with the shelter’s structure or show them a couple of pre-built examples of your own so they can study them and learn from you. Building shelters like this are great for introducing survival skills and promoting creativity, communication, and teamwork.

4. Go foraging

Give your children a guide or list of things in the area they can find. This activity is a natural scavenger hunt where they can find helpful materials in the forest and learn to identify them. Good examples of foraging are seeds, berries, and flowers. However, do warn your school not to eat anything before they’ve checked them with you. It’s best to give them a guide or two to what they’re looking for so they don’t accidentally pick up a nettle or a poisonous berry. Foraging teaches excellent skills, such as teamwork, communication, and knowledge of nature.

Where can you find a Forest School? 

A Forest School can be set up anywhere in the world! Forest School activities run in an open and natural location. Ideally, they are run in forests, Scout camps, or similar sites. However, they are often brought into any formal primary school as long as it has some green area for the children to explore.

Forest School Activities to do at Home

Here is a selection of Forest School providers we think are fantastic

Forest Explorers at Delamere Forest, Cheshire

Forest Explorers offers various engaging environmental education sessions, toddler sessions, and events in Delamere Forest, Cheshire. Working closely with Forestry England, they prioritise the safety and enjoyment of all visitors to the forest. With years of experience running outdoor education sessions, Helena Broadbent and her enthusiastic team deliver education programs for schools and groups. Forest Explorers also hosts various events throughout the year, which are extremely popular with families and adults alike. Booking is essential, and the events range from Easter Hunts and Wildlife Walks to Minibeast Hunts and Den Building, ensuring that there is something for everyone to enjoy regardless of age.

Find more information here.

Wild Brambles

Wild Brambles is a Forest School in a private woodland in Pinner, North-West London. They provide a unique opportunity for children to explore, learn, create, and have exciting adventures in a secure environment amidst the brambles. With the guidance of trained and skilled Forest School leaders, children have the freedom to be themselves, to play, run, climb, and build dens, as well as to tell stories and cook on the campfire. It’s a way to introduce children to new skills such as nature crafts, tool use, fire lighting, and outdoor games. Every day is a new adventure as the outdoor settings change with the seasons, offering fresh learning opportunities for everyone.

Learn more here.

GoWild Outdoors

GoWild Outdoors operates across several regions:

  • West Yorkshire: Leeds district, Bradford district, Huddersfield, Halifax
  • North Yorkshire: Harrogate, Wetherby, Skipton, York, Yorkshire Dales
  • North Wales: Denbighshire, Flintshire, Clwyd

They offer activities for various settings, including educational institutions, after-school clubs, children’s parties, holiday camps, group sessions, scouting and guiding groups and much more. GoWild Outdoors aims to inspire children to connect with nature using its three-way learning approach. This approach helps engage children with their outdoor surroundings. Depending on the setting, needs, and desired outcomes, the three learning methods can be delivered separately or combined in their programs and sessions.

Learn more here.

In conclusion, a Forest School is an educational approach in natural environments, usually forests, and encourages children to learn through hands-on, experiential activities. A Forest School will aim to foster a deeper connection between children and the environment, promote personal and social development, and enhance academic learning by immersing children in nature and providing them with opportunities to explore and engage with the natural world.

We hope this article has helped you to understand the value of outdoor education and its positive impact on children’s well-being and learning. Forest Schools offer a valuable alternative to traditional classroom-based education by providing a unique and stimulating learning environment. They can help to cultivate a lifelong love of learning and appreciation for the natural world. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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