The forest school ethos is spreading.
Not long ago, it was very much a sideline in the early years. Now? More and more schools are popping up, while more and more mainstream settings are choosing to introduce forest school sessions to their practice.
With good reason too. Forest schools have been shown to increase independence, engagement, and self-esteem in children, alongside a whole host of other benefits.
We spoke with Geoff Mason, founder and director of the Forest School Association who also runs his own forest school in the Isle of Wight, and Rebecca Cargill, who runs Blue Fox Forest School in London, to find out why Forest School is so effective, and how you can get started yourself.
What is the forest school pedagogy about?
Forest school as we know it began in the 50s, over a stretch of water and a little way up north over in Denmark.
“Forest School is an inspirational process,” Geoff explains, “that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.”
Children aim to develop a close relationship with nature, engage with risk, and follow their own interests. They cover the EYFS, of course, but through everyday interactions with the real world around them.
It’s more than just throwing on some wellies and going for a tramp through the woods. While the woodland environment is the prefered habitat of the forest school, the key to the pedagogy lies in giving children choice and freedom – it’s not just climbing trees and using wood saws.
“Forest School is about creating a safe environment where all learning styles are supported, creativity can be maximised and having a go is encouraged,” Rebecca explains.
What are the key principles?
If you’re not really sure how this transfers to concrete principles you can follow in forest schooling, you’re in luck.
The Forest School Association has clarified the pedagogy into six clear principles that they feel typify a strong forest school pedagogy.
The principles say that forest school:
- Is long-term and regular – Forest School should take place at least once every other week, and be planned for some time into the future to allow opportunities for children to understand boundaries and to give time for practitioners to plan, adapt, observe and review.
- Takes place in woodland or a natural environment with trees – This is to enable a close personal relationship between the learner and the natural world. The programme must monitor its impact on the environment and utilise natural resources for inspiration.
- Promotes holistic development – That means fostering resiliency, confidence, independence and creativity. It should also cover all areas of a child’s development.
- Should involve risk – It’s about providing a safe, risk-assessed environment where children can take calculated risks and learn about their own boundaries. Taking these risks can let children make the choices that they want to.
- Has practitioners who continuously develop – To follow forest school in the UK you must have a Level 3 Forest School practitioner involved. It also calls for high ratios, first aid qualifications, and constant reflective practice.
- Puts the learner first – The setting and practitioners are responsive to the needs and interests of the children first. Play and choice are central, as are observations which feed into the scaffolding of relevant interests. There should be interesting choices for all types of learners.
Are there any clear benefits to forest school?
With the focus on the learner, a slightly more open approach to risk, and the everyday experiences with nature, forest school has plenty of developmental benefits for children.
According to Geoff and Rebecca, these include:
- Increased physical development
- Competence to explore and discover
- Providing a real context for language development
- Understanding equality alongside their own unique value
- Recognising appropriate risk and overcoming challenges
- Freedom and choice
- Opportunities for problem-solving
- Engagement with their own learning
- Experiencing mastery and success
- Experiencing failure and making mistakes
- Cooperation and teamwork
- Understanding cold and warmth
- An understanding of the natural world and their place in it
How do I get started?
Now that you understand a bit more about why Forest School can be so powerful, time to look into how you can get started with forest school at your setting.
Not situated in the middle of a forest? Don’t let that deter you. “Don’t let a lack of space prevent you from introducing forest school,” says Geoff. “Use your contracts, creativity, and desire to allow your participants to experience the magic of forest school.”
1. Visit a forest school setting
Just like any time you want to try something new at your setting, getting on the phone and finding a local forest school to go and visit is a great starting off point.
It’s useful to see what it looks like in practice, and it’s the perfect inspiration for you and your team to see what you could end up with after some hard work. You’ll understand challenges and get a chance to ask some questions.
It could also be a great idea to start a partnership, a place where children can visit before you’re ready to go it completely alone.
2. Start small
All the planning involved in forest school can be a little daunting. Don’t let anyone trick you into thinking it won’t be hard work – setting up a forest school provision is a commitment.
But you don’t need to go straight to the big time, five days a week, full forest school provision straight away. Regularity is important to forest school, but the minimum session frequency recommended by the Forest School Association is once every other week for every child.
The key is continuity, so once you’ve committed, make sure that you have the things in place to carry on. Taking small groups, to begin with, is also important to the whole ethos, according to Rebecca.
“The principles of forest school can be applied in any outdoor setting, however urban,” says Rebecca. “Take small groups, don’t overthink it and see what happens – you can be confident that the children will have ideas.”
3. Get the training right
What’s next? Time to train.
To be associated with the Forest School movement properly in the UK, you need to have a qualified level 3 practitioner, and you can get the training for this online or in person. The Forest School Association have a helpful guide to training providers near you.
You can receive free level one training online to get a taster too, and of course, there’s always the option to hire a level 3 FS practitioner to your setting.
This is really where the bulk of the investment goes, so find a member of staff that is passionate and wants to remain at your setting. Of course, whenever you invest in training staff you can never be sure that they’ll stay. But the only thing worse than investing in staff that leave is failing to invest in the ones that stay.
You don’t have to go down the official route. You can offer outdoor provision without it being full forest school. However, if you want to really embrace the full forest school pedagogy, then taking some level of forest school training may be necessary.
4. Find an area
Don’t know where to start with finding an area of land for your forest school? Start with:
- Talking to the council.
- Getting in touch with your local authority.
- Seeing if there’s rugged space in a local park that you can use.
- Contact local landowners.
- Place ads locally – you might be pleasantly surprised with what turns up.
We know that not every area is blessed with endless trees and woodland. But you can get creative with what you have.
“Whether it is a full forest or a 20m x 20m corner of ‘wild area’ within an establishment, it is important that the site is natural,” Geoff says. “It should not be made artificially ‘safe’. There needs to be sticky-out branches, nettles, brambles, muddy puddles – the things that make exploration and ‘wild’ play exciting and challenging.”
5. Risk assessments
One of the biggest worries for many childcare providers is the risk involved in forest school.
High ratios are important to combat this, but you do need to risk assess whatever areas you’re using. You can also try a risk-benefit analysis, where you weigh up the risk of what’s involved with the benefit to the children’s development.
For this, you may need to reframe the way you see risk. First, you need to see the full benefits of certain risky activities like using fire or tools, that may seem inappropriate if you don’t understand how valuable they can be to a child’s confidence and understanding of the world.
From here, one simple truth is that if the reward is high, and the risk is either very low impact or very unlikely, then the benefits will probably outweigh the risk.
6. Have a first-aider
Many forest school courses will require you to have a first aid certificate already, while others include it in the training.
Either way, if you’re planning on increasing your outdoor provision in any way, it’s important that you look into specialist outdoor first aid certificates. The risks are slightly higher outdoors and you need someone who knows what to do in an emergency.
7. Sort out your equipment
So your training is in place, you’ve got the land, and a practitioner or two who want to learn.
The next biggest worry for many providers is the economic impact of equipment. If you’re strapped for cash, look into outdoor funding grants to help you with the costs of equipment and even training.
In terms of how to prioritise, start by covering the basics. Warmth, food, drink, safety. A toilet.
Waterproofs are also a good investment, or the laundry bills are going to start stacking up. Whether you or parents pay for this depends on your model, but if you can include it within the offer, it helps to make sure everyone can access your new forest school provision.
8. Ask about your insurance
Lots of people worry about insurance, but you needn’t make it so complex. Just call up your insurer and see – a lot of providers are already covered.
If not, your costs aren’t exactly going to skyrocket. We’ve heard of providers paying no more than £40 extra to cover the equipment and the extra risk.
9. Understand risky play
Risky play is central to the forest school approach.
It’s engaging for children, allowing them to learn about their own boundaries. No child learns wrapped up in cotton wool and it’s also great for physical development, motor control, balance and coordination.
“The calculated risks they take at forest school empower them to make calculated risks in other areas of life,” explains Rebecca. And this isn’t just about climbing trees either.
“Children who are selected mutes or have speech impediments feel mentally free in the natural environment and it’s a safe way for everyone to learn, talk, communicate freely,” Rebecca goes on. “They feel physically and mentally free and so they take risks, make mistakes and give things a go.” In a classroom environment, these same children can often be fearful to try new things because they’re concerned they might get them wrong.
For more information on how to encourage risky play in your setting, check out our article on why it matters so much.
10. A new approach to planning
If you’re used to forward planning, the forest school approach is also going to challenge you on that front.
The child-led approach that forest school follows tends to minimise any adult-selected activities, focusing more on the practitioner as a facilitator who helps children to follow their interests. They support their play with scaffolding rather than providing explicit instructions for activities.
The observation is still king, but many forest school practitioners find that an In-The-Moment Planning approach suits the forest school pedagogy better.
11. Trust the kids.
Ultimately? The key to forest schooling is trusting the children that you look after.
One example of this is understanding how in forest school, watching can actually be taking part. “Some children are apprehensive at first and need time to absorb activities like tool use before they feel ready to have a go,” says Rebecca. “Children who have been in the mainstream education system often find this difficult as they are always waiting for someone to tell them what to do.”
It’s a process, and it will take some time to find the right approach for your setting. You need to trust the children to engage safely in risk. Trust them to learn by doing what they’re interested in, not some activity you found on the internet. By exploring, being inquisitive, and having hands-on experiences with the real world.
“It’s about having confidence in the children and not getting hung up on how many trees you have,” Rebecca finishes. “Taking children outside and removing a pencil from their hands allows different types of learners to shine.”
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