Forest Schools aim to encourage and inspire individuals of any age through positive outdoor experiences. Angela Youngman investigates the outdoor learning initiative, which originates from Scandinavia

Making fires, toasting bread and boiling water over the flames; shelter building, climbing trees, cutting down trees, using saws and knives for carving – these are not activities in which children nowadays are generally encouraged to participate. Many observers would say that children have become too cosseted by a nanny mentality, preventing them from exploring and learning to cope with hazards. Teachers have become extremely wary of any activity involving potential health-and-safety hazards, as they do not want to become involved in possible litigation.

However, for increasing numbers of children, a return to more adventurous activities is becoming a reality. Within the ambit of Forest Schools they are learning all kinds of outdoor activities – appreciating how to care for, and respond to, the environment, while looking after themselves and others. While all children are benefiting, it has proved to be extremely successful, with children possessing kinesthetic learning abilities, having opened up a whole new world for them. All who have been involved in Forest Schools are adamant that it has led to an increase in every child’s learning experiences, their self-confidence, care for others and the environment.

Children learning through nature is not a new concept. From as early as 1860, educators have promoted the value of the natural environment for health, learning and emotional wellbeing. Froebel, for instance, believed that doing was an essential part of education, with a strong emphasis on nature. It also reflects modern-day concerns, with environmentalism, good citizenship and care for the future of the planet very much in the forefront. If children are involved at an early stage in woodlands and outdoor activities, they are more likely to appreciate what they are in danger of losing as they get older.

Forest Schools – concept and philosophy
The concept of Forest Schools originated in Scandinavia, where there is a strong belief that nature and movement are essential to a child’s development.  In 1995 they were introduced into the UK by Bridgewater College. Since then, the Forest School ethos has been developing rapidly within England, Wales and Scotland. Organisations such as the National Trust, Forestry Commission and Wildlife Trusts, have eagerly taken on this concept and offer it to schools visiting their sites. In many other areas, local education authorities have begun training teachers to operate small-scale activities within the school grounds, before encouraging them to move into nearby woodland or open areas to give children a wider experience. For town and city children, this can be their first experience of outdoor life.

The philosophy of a Forest School is to encourage and inspire children through positive outdoor experiences.  Ideally, children should visit the same local woodlands on a regular basis throughout the year, no matter what the weather. Only high winds prevent a Forest School from operating. While participating in Forest School, children use full-sized tools, play, and learn boundaries of physical and social behaviour, as well as gaining self- confidence, independence and self-esteem.

A well organised Forest School is more than just a collection of activities. Children have the opportunity to play and discover the woodlands, without any pressure from the need to meet National Curriculum requirements in statutory subjects. This can sometimes be hard for teachers to accept –  there are no neat boxes that can be ticked, nor immediate, clear learning outcomes. In practice, each child benefits differently from the experience. They develop inter-personal skills, such as teamwork, as well as practical and intellectual skills.

What they do
So what happens during a Forest School? The answer is – anything! The children may be asked to learn about fire lighting and try their hand at doing this task. Shelter building is an integral part of a Forest School and an activity in which the children steadily get better. The aim is to build a shelter out of natural materials – wood, branches, leaves – which will keep them warm and dry.

They investigate trees, find out about the natural environment, play games, and make natural objects, such as whistles and panpipes. Older children may learn how to make ropes out of nettles, or learn how to tie different types of knots.

There may be a mini-beast hunt, or they could study wild flowers, or the effect of litter on wildlife in the woodland. They learn to cope with hazards, such as brambles, stinging nettles and overhead branches. They may be asked to help build bridges or try mapping. All sessions are designed around the needs of the group.

Many areas of the National Curriculum are intrinsically covered within a Forest School, but they
are not curriculum-led. For example, Forest-School activities link into Every Child Matters, through the focus and care shown at individual child levels and the Primary National Strategy (Excellence and Enjoyment), especially with regards to creativity and innovation, and in its fulfillment of the guidance for the Foundation Stage. Forest schools can help develop most subjects, such as science, citizenship, maths, art and design and English.

Reactions from teachers who have taken part in Forest Schools have been extremely positive. North Wingfield Infant School in Chesterfield participated in a variety of week-long projects.  Woods local to the school were used via links with the Countryside Department. The aim was to develop communication skills in Year 1, 2 and 3 children at North Wingfield, and other schools within their cluster. The project ran one-day-a-week for 14 weeks, with every session being spent in the forest. In addition, there was an introductory session held indoors, with the group at the school before visiting the forest. The sessions lasted from 9.30 am to 12.30 and from 12.45 to 2.30 pm. One school came in the morning, another came in the afternoon.

The results were more than expected. Many children were so thrilled by what they had been experiencing that they actually took their parents into the woodlands to show them what they had been doing. Back in the classroom, the children proved to be much better motivated and more willing to take part in the lessons. Some children were found to have shown out-of-character behaviour during the Forest School – for example, a child who was reluctant to speak in front of the class volunteered to explain the rules of a game to the rest of the group. Another child, who was reluctant to undertake physical activity, or who became involved in classroom work, became extremely motivated within the woodland setting. Back in school, the child was more willing to play with other children – especially games of hide and seek.

In Norfolk, Litcham Primary School’s nursery class has participated in a scheme held within the grounds of Houghton Hall. One day a week, across a six-week period, the children went down to the woods. Every session was planned around the same routine – singing Mikkel Rev (a Norwegian nursery rhyme), walking on a rope train, free play in the woodland, coming back together as a group and returning on the rope train to school. During their time in the woodland, children engaged in natural activities, such as shelter building, climbing trees, willow weaving, mini-beasting and pouch making. Each activity used only natural materials from the woodland and the children were given tools, where necessary, and taught to use them safely. On the last day, they toasted bread dough they had previously prepared at school over a small campfire. All the woodland sessions were reinforced by activities within the school grounds.

Headteacher Christine Watts commented: ‘The children have learned how to keep themselves and others safe, within acceptable boundaries, and love the fact that they are able to make their own choices. It has given teachers the time to observe individual children carefully, thus helping them to plan their next stage in learning.’

There are inevitable accidents during Forest Schools. Children have been known to fall out of trees, or to trip over. The usual reaction from the child is to immediately demand to climb again! Careful explanations of how to deal with trees and flames prevents accidents, while allowing children the freedom to explore.

According to Susan Falch-Lovesey, head of Environmental Education Service in Norfolk, ‘Outdoor learning motivates children to develop the values, attitudes and skills required to appreciate, respect and care for their natural environment. It gives an opportunity for children to have a voice and make informed choices. Handling responsibility, rising to expectations, and understanding the consequences of actions, led to the principle outcome of safety and risk-awareness, appropriate to age and activity. I have had parents email me, saying they’ve never seen the children play outside so much. Another benefit is that participation in Forest Schools has been helping children with the transition from Foundation Stage to KS1.’

Introduction and training
All organisers of Forest Schools have to be fully trained. At level one, people have to undertake 30 hours’ training, working in an outdoor setting, combining theory and practical activities, such as supporting learners outdoors, identifying woodland life and using the woodland as a base for learning. Increasing numbers of teachers are being trained at this level, so as to provide basic Forest School outdoor activities within their school grounds.

A much higher-level qualification – level 3 Forest School Leaders Award – is available. It requires participation in a first-aid outdoors weekend, a five-day intensive training week, a two-day residential and a one-day tutorial and assessment. This qualification enables people to run full-scale Forest School, usually in a woodland not linked to the school. Funding may be available via local education authorities, or organisations such as the Forestry Commission.

Getting involved in Forest Schools is also proving beneficial for teachers, as Susan Falch-Lovesey points out. ‘We have found that it develops a teacher’s own confidence and experience.’
Many local education authorities are focusing on introducing Forest School activities into Foundation Stage and KS1. The momentum is, however, reduced as children enter KS2. This is a shame, as Forest Schools offer a tremendous opportunity to build on all that children have experienced up to that point.

Schools can face so much pressure to focus on achievements, within literacy, science and maths, that learning becomes much more classroom-based. This does not suit all children, especially kinesthetic learners. Teachers faced with the stress of meeting curriculum requirements need the confidence and experience to try alternative methods. It can be hard accepting that children running about in a woodland and building shelters can actually be learning in such a relaxed atmosphere – but it does happen! Children often learn more through such experiences than if they are cooped-up in a classroom all day and every day.

To find out details of your local Forest School.