What is a forest school? What happens on a typical day and where to find your nearest

Is the great outdoors a better classroom for children?

There’s a growing trend to get children outdoors and immerse them in nature. Better known as the Forest School Movement, it's the latest education trend is to get kids outside in the rain or sunshine.

What is a Forest School?

Forest Schools offer a unique approach to education inspiring and engaging children through outdoor experiences, learning and play.

According to the Forest School Association, a outdoor activities offers learners “opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.”

Currently, Forest Schools are more common in rural areas, and are used to educate younger children in nursery or reception.  Though, the educational approach is also being used with teenagers and adults who have emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Forest School

Young children huddling together under a teepee made from branches / Credit: Getty

Six key principles of Forest School learning

Each Forest School follows a programme with a common set of principles articulated by the Forest School Community and published by the Institute for Outdoor Learning Forest School in February 2012.

  • Forest School is a long-term process of regular sessions, rather than a one-off or infrequent visits
  • Education takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
  • Uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
  • Aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
  • Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
  • Forest School is run by qualified practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.
Forest School

Teacher and children looking at plants in woods / Credit: Getty

How and when were forest schools founded?

Though the Forest School education system is a fairly new phenomenon in the UK, outdoor learning actually dates back to the 19th century.

Early pioneers of outdoor camps and outdoor education include philosophers and naturalists in Europe and the UK such as William Wordsworth, Leslie Paul and Kurt Hahn.

Forest Schools originated in Scandinavian countries such as Denmark, Finland and Norway in the 1950s, and were inspired by Scandinavian values of open-air living and open-air education. The first outdoor learning school was introduced in the UK in 1993 by a group of nurses from Bridgewater College in Somerset.

Toasting marshmellow on a campfire / Credit: Getty

Forest School activities for outdoor classrooms

 The outdoors offers children so many activities to learn and play.

Stephanie Bryan, founder of Forest School Honey Bees in Bentley believes, “The outdoor curriculum helps to teach children a broad range of intrapersonal and interpersonal skills and valuable life lessons – similar to the ones they would learn in a traditional school setup, but just in a unique and fun way!”

  • Build fires
  • Cook on a campfire
  • Create dens and shelters
  • Create a nest for a bird
  • Create a bug hotel
  • Create art using colours from nature
  • Build an assault course for squirrels
  • Hide and Seek
  • Puddle jumping
  • Foraging

‘We love the freedom of forest schools’

bethan smith forest school

Credit: Bethan Smith

GoodtoKnow spoke to Bethan Smith, who sent her daughter Elsie to a Forest School from the age of 18-months, as well as younger son Fox who accompanied Elsie at school from birth in a baby sling.

Bethan said, “Some Forest Schools have set activities at set times, such as bush crafts, mud crafts or games but our Forest School had no itinerary.

“This allowed for the kids to get deeply involved in whatever they were doing, be it den building, climbing, imaginary play or just laying back in a hammock. Some days Elsie wouldn’t want to do anything other than sit on my lap and read books.

Forest schools

Credit: Bethan Smith

“The main thing that caught my attention was the absolute freedom the children had at Forest School. My kids had freedom to play where, what and when they wanted.

“There were a few rules such as no running with sticks and no stepping in the fire square, but mostly the children could do as they liked.

“I especially believe in the magic of Forest Schools. When we spend an afternoon out in a woods somewhere and Elsie and Fox are so obviously at home there.”

A typical day at forest school

GoodtoKnow spoke to Stephanie Bryan, founder of Forest School Honey Bees in Bentley, about a typical day for children.

“Our little ones enjoy a hearty, nutritious breakfast to prepare them for a day of fun and physical activity in the great outdoors before getting their outdoor gear on in preparation for the real fun to begin.
 
Each day we will set up base made up of cosy pop-up sleeping tents, a small nappy changing tent, a toilet tent and a hand washing station.
 
Activities can range from treasure hunts, climbing trees, building dens and creative play to reading stories, mark making and mathematics including counting leaves, acorns, feathers in the outdoors. 
 
We enjoy our morning snack, lunch and afternoon snack out in the outdoors, then towards early afternoon we start to make our way back to our base at Honey Bees Cottage.
Here we will take the time to reflect upon our day, enjoy an extra-curricular class and discuss with the children what they enjoyed the most.
 
The little ones that have an afternoon nap to reflect on their morning outside and then wake up to play and learning for the rest of the day at Honey Bees Cottage.”

Forest School teachers helping group of kids build forts in the woods / Credit: Getty

What are the benefits of forest schools?

 Forest School helps children develop a skillset that is hard to teach in a classroom environment. Benefits for children include problem-solving, assessing risk, teamwork and communication skills.

Teamwork and communication skills

Researchers at Loughborough University, including Dr Janine Coates and Dr Helena Pimlott-Wilson, conducted  research in to two primary Forest Schools in Nottinghamshire. The findings suggests outdoor learning encourage collaborative skills, by helping children to solve challenges with others.

Alex Alves, Forest School leader at Fairfield Prep School said, “The freedom of outdoor learning offers children the chance to form their first meaningful friendships, sharing experiences and playing together.

“We often see children come out of their shells in the more relaxed environment, facing issues like shyness or difficulty socialising.”

Rounded educational experience

The study found Forest Schools shift focus away from results, exams and achievements, and instead offer a more rounded educational experience.

Learning ties in with much of the National Curriculum including, science, geography, art and design. For example, examining insects and plant life links to the science curriculum, and tasks such as building dens and woodwork links to art, technology and design.

Developing risk-taking skills

Research further found  ‘experiential’ learning equips young children with practical skills which can be transferred to family activities outside of school. Indeed, children learn to assess problems and take risks, to make sensible, informed decisions based on the situation at hand.

Forest School founder Stephanie further explains, “Risk-taking under close adult supervision is also actively encouraged, helping to foster friendships and collaboration between all children and adults present.”

Children learn to use tools, start fires and respect fires – they also earn how to risk-assess, decide what is safe and when they need help.

Stephanie continued, “We always operate with a high adult-to-child ratio (typically one to five) so we can plan, observe, adapt and review the progress of each child to ensure their aims are being met.”

Creativity and imagination

Benefits include just simply being outdoors and at one with nature. Undoubtedly kids get more fresh air and beautiful scenery, but there are real physical and mental benefits to spending time outside.

Forest Leader Alex said, “Children are natural born adventurers and are always keen to learn anything and everything about the world around them, so their curiosity and inquisitive nature should always be encouraged. Forest Schools offer an environment that’s perfect for this, allowing them to discover new objects and experiences and get hands-on with nature.”

According to research carried out by Michigan State University, children who spend five to 10 hours a week outside are more creative, diverse and imaginative.

Alex agrees, “Outside, children have the space to devise their own stories, transforming climbing frames into castles and dens, and developing characters with their peers. These storytelling skills promote interacting with others and fires the imagination, which helps children develop the tools for literacy and other subjects.”

 Building an environmentally aware generation

By fostering a relationship between children and their natural environment we are teaching children to respect their environment and give back to nature. Alex explains, “By encouraging an active lifestyle and a positive approach to the environment, we are helping to develop a more environmentally-conscious and sustainable generation.”

Where to find your nearest forest school?

If you’re searching for your nearest school and would like to find out more, head to forestschoolassociation.org. The schools and organisations all provide programmes in line with the six principles of outdoor education and have been approved by the Forest School Association.