The Many Benefits of Forest Schools

By Izzy Williamson

Forest schools are spaces where learning takes place in natural settings – usually woodland, forest or parkland. The aim of forest schools is to promote children’s interpersonal and cognitive development as well as building knowledge. To achieve this, forest schools encourage children to learn as individuals through exploring, discovering, trying and seeing, with typical activities including fire-lighting, den-building, tree-climbing, foraging, sensory walks and storytelling. Sessions are run by qualified Forest School practitioners – with over 12,000 registered in the UK in 2015. There are currently 51 FSA (Forest School Association) Recognised Providers in the UK.

Where did forest schools originate?

The forest school philosophy originates from the open-air culture in Scandinavia – also known as ‘friluftsliv’ (free air life), which inspired the start-up of outdoor kindergartens in the 1950s.

Since their introduction to the UK in the 1990s, forest schools have become progressively popular. Proposed reasons for this trend have included heightened attention to children’s social, emotional and mental wellbeing, alongside growing concern over children’s disconnection with nature.

The Many Benefits of Forest Schools

How do forest schools differ to mainstream schools?

By embracing alternative spaces and practices of education, forest schools challenge our assumptions about how and where learning can, or perhaps should, take place.

Freedom in learning

By taking place outside, where unrestrained physical and conceptual exploration is authorised, forest schools challenge the spatial and social confinements inherent to mainstream schools. This significantly influences the learning process:

  • Given the unpredictable nature of being outdoors, learning at a forest school offers a more varied and dynamic experience than the classroom.
  • With learning more heavily oriented around sensory experiences, rather than written tasks, nature-based education has been demonstrated as a constructive way to engage children by stimulating curiosity and intrigue.

Wellbeing over well-becoming

With a focus upon ‘wellbeing’, rather than ‘well-becoming’, forest schools encompass a different time scale to mainstream schools.

A relaxed structure offers children the freedom to determine how, and at what pace they want to learn, rather than being coerced into adult-imposed regulations.

This enables children the time and space “to ‘breathe’ and express themselves”, which means they are more able to construct and voice an identity – as well as develop an awareness of their place in the world.

Nurture through nature

There is a consensus that mainstream schools have become progressively fixated upon children’s academic progress, which to some, has corrupted the idea that childhood is a time for play, spontaneity and imagination.

In contrast, forest schools determine ‘progress’ through children’s personal, social and emotional development – instead of measurable outputs such as grades. This process-driven, rather than target-driven mode of learning, empowers children to scaffold skills, knowledge and ideas – rather than revise and remember them.

This more relaxed, flexible and non-goal-oriented approach has proved highly accommodating and supportive – especially for children with special needs or learning difficulties such as ADHD.

The Many Benefits of Forest Schools
The Many Benefits of Forest Schools
The Many Benefits of Forest Schools

Can forest schools reconnect children with nature?

Nature deficit disorder

According to Natural England (2009), less than 10% of children regularly play in wild places – compared to 50% a generation ago. This is attributed to an overdependence upon computers, electronics and man-made playgrounds which have displaced more natural forms of learning.

There is consensus among teachers, doctors, social workers and conservationists that children’s disconnect from the natural world is associated with a multitude of physical, mental and emotional health issues. These have been grouped under the umbrella term ‘nature deficit disorder’.

The antidote

In building children’s understanding of nature and nurturing an appreciation for it, forest schools have been valued as a grassroots way to overcome nature deficit disorder and the associated ripple effects. For example, research shows that children at forest schools are less likely to come down with colds, flu and viruses. Furthermore, with activity levels 2.7x higher than typical school days, children are much less likely to be overweight.

More broadly, in helping rekindle children’s fascination with the natural world, forest schools have been recognised as a site to engage both children and adults with ecological challenges such as climate change. This is supported by research which affirms that regular, sensory and memorable experiences with the environment – especially during the early years – can forge a relationship with nature which is both meaningful and long-lasting.

The Many Benefits of Forest Schools

Reflecting Thoughts

For centuries, there has been an assumption that ‘taught-based’ educational approaches are vital for the young. This has meant that our mainstream format for education has been based within a classroom environment, whereby a formal curriculum is taught and tested.

Reimagining education and childhood has potential to have profound impact at both the individual and societal level. With the case of forest schools, rethinking the spaces, structures and values of education offers a new way to respond to global-scale challenges – especially that of climate change.

The Many Benefits of Forest Schools

References

  1. Bal, E. and Kaya, G. (2020) Investigation of Forest School Concept by Forest School Teachers’ Viewpoints, International Electronic Journal of Environmental Education, 10(2): 167–180.
  2. Cheng, Y. E. (2014) Geographies of Alternative Education: diverse learning spaces for children and young people, Children’s Geographies, 12(3): 369-370.
  3. Coates, J. K., and Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2019) Learning while playing: A qualitative exploration of children’s experiences of Forest School in the United Kingdom, British Educational Research Journal, 45: 21–40.
  4. Cree, J. and McCree, M. (n.d.) A Brief History of Forest School in the UK – Part 2, Horizons Magazine No 62, Accessed: 22nd January 2021, Available at: https://www.outdoor-learning-research.org/Portals/0/Research%20Documents/Horizons%20Archive/H62.HistoryofForestSchool.Pt2.pdf?ver=2014-12-15-113352-000
  5. Forest School Association (FSA) (2021) What is Forest School? FSA, Accessed: 22nd January 2021, Available at: https://www.forestschoolassociation.org/what-is-forest-school/
  6. Hemery, G., Hurst, J., and Petrokofsky, G. (2019) Bringing children closer to nature: report of a survey on Forest School and outdoor learning in England, Sylva Foundation, Accessed: 22nd January 2021, Available at: https://sylva.org.uk/forestschools/report
  7. Louv, R. (2005) Last Child in the Woods, Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC.
  8. Mycock, K. (2020) Forest schools: moving towards an alternative pedagogical response to the Anthropocene? Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 41(3): 427–440.
  9. Natural England (2009) Childhood and Nature: a survey on changing relationships with nature across generations, Natural England, 31st March, Accessed: 22nd January 2021, Available at:  http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/5853658314964992
  10. Ridgers et al (2012) Encouraging play in the natural environment: A child‐focused case study of Forest School, Children’s Geographies,10 (1):49–65.
  11. Moss, S. (2012) Natural Childhood, National Trust, Accessed: 22nd January 2021, Available at: https://nt.global.ssl.fastly.net/documents/read-our-natural-childhood-report.pdf
  12. Austin et al (2013) Investigating the effectiveness of Forest School sessions on children’s physical activity levels. Available at : https://www.merseyforest.org.uk/files/documents/1341/Austin,%20C.,%20Knowles,%20Z.%20and%20Sayers,%20J.%20Forest%20School%20Evaluation.pdf