Early humans were forest dwellers. The scientific consensus on this is universal and the fossil records back it up. Through a mix of environmental change, the increased prevalence of grasslands between forested areas and the evolution of well… us, we became bipedal or, in lay-mans terms, walked on two legs. We stopped swinging through the trees and emerged from the woods between about 4.5 and 3.2 million years ago, give or take a year.  

And ever since then we’ve been running just as fast as we can busy in the race to the top of the food chain and overlords of all the sun touches and anything that we could see, hear, catch and eat.

We are a wonder of the natural world, but it could also be argued that we’ve become separate from the natural world, a freak of nature locked away in our schools and workplaces focussed entirely on the pursuit of human endeavours and, perhaps, lacking the knowledge, awareness and respect for the natural world that gave rise to us in the first place.

What is a Forest School?

One initiative is trying to rebalance that. Forest Schools are: 

“nature-based communities where trained practitioners nurture learner led exploration and discovery, nurturing meaningful experiences for positive lifelong impacts.”

Forestschools.com

It’s an ethos that was initially developed in 1950’s Sweden, and following a research trip to uncover the benefits and subtle power of forest-based learning, a group of UK based pre-school practitioners decided to explore the benefits for themselves, venture into the woods and trial the programme in the UK. 

The Forest Schools movement seeks to encourage and motivate children in an outdoor environment that facilitates learning from play. Children experience the outdoor natural environment rather than simply using it as an arena to burn off excess energy. 

The natural environment is presented as a place for learning, rather than a resource to be exploited and an interactive approach is encouraged that enables children to learn about natural processes and species. 

Forest school principles

There are six core principles that the Forest Schools Association has identified. They are:

Principle 1: Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit. Planning, adaptation, observations and reviewing are integral elements of Forest School.

Principle 2: Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.

Principle 3: Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners

Principle 4: Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.

Principle 5: Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.

Principle 6. Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning

And it’s an approach that doesn’t believe learning and play are mutually exclusive, in fact it’s on that emphasises play at the heart of a productive learning experience. A handbook, Reimagining outdoor learning spaces, produce by Future lab.org.uk highlights this approach:

“Play is a crucial element in supporting children’s health, development and well-being and a means through which they experiment, develop their abilities, get creative and explore the world around them. Effective play enables children to explore and create rules and understandings; develop resilience; be active; be creative and imaginative; practice new skills; learn about risks; stimulate their senses and build friendships and relationships. Play can contribute immensely to children’s enjoyment of childhood, offering a place of sanctuary and also providing a therapeutic function by helping them to deal with emotional circumstances and issues that can occur in their lives.”

Future Lab

Benefits of an outdoor education

There are a whole host of benefits that children can experience by learning outside in a natural environment. Research has shown that the natural environment helps to stimulate children, providing them with amply opportunity to take risks, learn and work together. This has a ripple effect which helps to improve their confidence learning capacity, enthusiasm, communication and problem-solving skills and emotional well-being.

Forest School

There are Physical benefits too. Because children at a Forest School will spend a great deal of time being active, exploring, climbing trees and building dens they can end up being physically healthier, emotionally more resilient and more encouraged to live healthier lifestyles.  

Not all children excel in a classroom environment, so the confidence that they can develop through participation in a Forest School can spill over into other aspects of their education, including time spent in the classroom. 

Forest Schools help children to develop their creativity, to use their imaginations and to learn how to work together as a community for the common good. 

What does the research say?

The research is ongoing but, when a Forest School is implemented in the right and proper way than the evidence is overwhelming. Francis Harris found in “Outdoor learning spaces: The case of forest school” that:

Forest school leaders claimed children found being outdoors stimulating to all senses, so that the environment “wakes people up” (Int 1). They also believed that being outdoors was associated with enjoying themselves, and “wonder” at natural things made learning more exciting and “memorable”, so that learning was more likely to be retained.

The claims made in this research underscores a growing body of research that the use of natural spaces have a huge influence in shaping the learning experience of children, and their educators, when moving from the classroom to the physical space of a woodland environment.  

The non-formal nature of the children’s learning, which supports a natural progression and free-flowing style of teaching also mean that young people are free to learn at their own pace and may retain the new experiences and information more easily without the pressures and strictures of the traditional classroom environment.

However, there has also been criticism about the way in which Forest Schools have been delivered and Mark Leather emphasises the need for a holistic approach in A critique of Forest School: Something lost in translation 

Leather recognises that:

“Over the past decade there has been an increased focus on reconnecting children with nature (Louv, 2005), based on the recognition that being in nature is a good thing, said to encourage bonding with the natural world (Chawla & Cushing, 2007) as well as supporting children’s imaginative play and the development of positive relationships (Dowdell, Gray, & Malone, 2011).”

Mark Leather in ‘A critique of Forest School’

Leather has provided a thorough critique emphasising the need to avoid simply parachuting in a poor imitation of a Forest School in an effort to improve a school’s PR. The idea of importing am incredibly useful idea from abroad (in this case Scandinavia)  and then watering it down is not new, but the critique here is fair. 

The conclusion made is the concern that “Forest School will become a reified and limited version of outdoor and environmental education.” Leather argues “In order to prevent this we need to better understand and utilise the learning and development made possible via Forest Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education (published before print, 26 Sept 2016) 9 School. To achieve this we need to engage in a much deeper cultural and theoretical exploration of its meaning.”

And he is absolutely right. In order to successfully bring about the positive benefits associated with the delivery of Forest Schools and the impacts that they can have on a young person’s education we need to thoroughly understand the mechanisms at play.

A great deal of fantastic high quality research has been done that shows clearly some of the amazing benefits that participation in a Forest School can have. But if we want to reconnect young people with nature, if we want them to feel the wonder and awe for the natural environment and if we want to inspire the next generation with a passion for protecting the planet then we need to think seriously about rolling our Forest Schools at a local, national and international level. 

There is something about being in the forest that creates a sense of oneness with nature within all people. Almost as if a long lost yearning deep within us that recognises these natural woodland spaces that we once called home. But in order to reconnect with the environment and its embrace that we have now left we must view it in a different way. We must seek to understand it as natural space in which we are entitled to exist in – Forests should not be resources to be chopped down and mined; they should be areas we simply walk through on neatly maintained footpaths. 

Forests can be places where we interact with nature, where we swim and climb, where friendships are forged and where memories are made to last a lifetime. Only by enabling young people to experience this can we inspire a deep commitment to protecting the forest of the world, the lungs of the planet and the place we once called home.

Resources:

Forest School

Forest School Training

Forest School Association