Forest School - A Complete Guide

An under-five enjoying a Forest SchoolLeaps & Bounds Day Nursery offers children regular Forest School sessions as part of its curriculum. But, what exactly does ‘Forest School’ mean? In this article, we set out to explain what ‘Forest School’ is, what it stands for and what you and your children can expect from it. Our aim, in fact, is to tell you pretty much everything you need to know, and more.

Forest School

The “Forest School” ethos is described by the Forest School Association (‘FSA’) as:

“An inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a local woodland environment.”

Obviously, as a nursery and pre-school, we’ll slant this guide towards what it means to our early years age groups, however the same ethos and principles apply to all ages catered for within what we call Forest School.

History & roots

Fun with shelters at Forest SchoolThe Forest School approach has its roots in outdoor learning philosophies going back as far as the 19th Century. If you take a look, these influences alone will tell you a huge amount about what the Forest School approach stands for. They include:

  • Robert Baden Powell, founder of the Worldwide Scout Movement;
  • Leslie Paul, founder of The Woodcraft Folk;
  • Kurt Hahn, founder of Gordonstoun (where Prince Charles was partly educated), with its massive emphasis on outdoor education;
  • Susan Sutherland Isaacs, the renowned educational psychologist who, along with promoting the nursery school movement, emphasised the importance of learning through play and exploration in tandem with guidance from parents and adults;
  • The McMillan sisters, who were nursery school pioneers and set up The Open-Air Nursery School & Training Centre in 1914. They also believed that children learned best through exploration.

“Friluftsliv”

Educational fun in the outdoorsHowever, the biggest influence on the formation of Forest School came in 1993, when Bridgewater College nursery staff studied Denmark’s ‘friluftsliv’ (outdoors) approach to early years education. This outdoor, child-centred, play-based education system lay at the core of Scandinavia’s early years educational success and was enormously influential on those visiting for the study. After returning to Somerset, the nursery staff founded ‘Forest School’.

Just two years later, Bridgewater College began to offer a ‘B Tech in Forest School’. This course and qualification was offered to other early years practitioners, many of whom were already enthusiastic proponents of outdoor teaching and learning. In this way, Forest School soon spread to other UK early years and education settings. Leaps and Bounds Day Nursery in Edgbaston (Birmingham) is one of them, presently having at least three of its own, fully-trained, Forest School leaders at any given time.

Learn more about the history of Forest School here.

Forest School today

Today, Forest School has its own association, the FSA, which oversees the work of practitioners and applies its philosophy and guiding principles to all Forest School settings around the UK. Those guiding principles include a framework of 6 key areas:Back to nature at Forest School

1. Regular sessions are attended outdoors, in the natural world, over the long term (not just occasional visits). The sessions are well structured and allow learning to progress and build upon itself as time goes by. There are usually sessions at least once every other week. Where practicable, they also occur within all four seasons.

2. The Forest School curriculum is best suited to woodlands or, in the absence of suitable local woodland, natural outdoor areas with, ideally, at least some trees. The aim is for a relationship to develop between the individuals and the natural world. Those learning are encouraged to explore and discover within the outdoor space. While access to woodland is preferred, it’s not essential. Indeed, it’s possible for urban early years settings to offer Forest School sessions from places like school grounds. However, in that scenario, practitioners may need to ‘import’ some natural learning materials into the setting (e.g. sticks, logs etc.) and make certain other provisions, as appropriate.

It’s also important that, wherever the Forest School sessions are held, any potential ecological impact will be closely monitored and mitigated.

3. It is a holistic approach, aiming at the development of the ‘whole’ person. This includes the fostering of traits like resilience, confidence, independence and creativity while also developing physical, emotional, social, linguistic and spiritual aspects.

4. Together with the Forest School practitioner, the learners will assess potential risks and benefits of activities pursued, as appropriate. The level of involvement of children in the risk/benefit assessment will depend upon their age and developmental stage.

Forest School5. Forest Schools require the practitioners leading sessions to be qualified to at least Level 3 accreditation. They also need to maintain and further develop their professional learning (as reflective practitioners, they are actually learners too). Each will have undergone the relevant checks for working alongside children, of course. They will also hold an up-to-date first aid qualification that includes paediatric and outdoor elements as appropriate.

6. The Forest School approach to teaching methodology is one that primarily focuses on the needs and interests of the individual who is learning. It is also, however, undertaken with a view to the experience being part of wider group undertaking, where a community is built around learning and development within the natural environment. Play is a big part of the learning, as is the building in of choice, personal preference and natural disposition. An element of reflection is also built into Forest School sessions so as to continuously appraise the progress of learning and development. Achievements are celebrated and observations are fed into the ‘scaffolding’ that makes up the longer-term plan for each individual.

Life-Long positive benefits

It’s important to understand that Forest School is an ‘ethos’ rather than a ‘destination’. Nursery schools and pre-schools therefore do not ‘become a Forest School’ as such. However, they provide Forest School programmes as part of their overall curriculum.

‘Forest School is a feeling you can’t put into words.’ (Tonicha, early years Forest School student)

Those attending can benefit from life-long positive effects that Forest School can bring them. On a personal note, as someone who was introduced to something very similar when I was a child, I can absolutely vouch for that statement. Having been introduced to The Great Outdoors from a young age, I can honestly say that it’s where I am happiest, decades on. It’s healthy — on so many physical and spiritual levels.

Being closer to the natural world teaches us so much about nature and existence — and also a huge amount about ourselves. It gives us a profound perspective on the world, which permeates into knowledge and wisdom relating to so many different aspects of life as a whole. That even sometimes includes areas that are, at least on the face of it, not even directly related to nature.

‘I don’t have ADHD when I`m out in the woods.’ (David, Forest School student)

The magic of the outdoorsFor young children, Forest School can also be something that helps them to experience regular successes, also often helping them to feel more valued and equal. It’s a fantastic ‘leveller’ and a great conduit for developing positive relationships with others, irrespective of things like background, ability and physical or mental challenges etc. In fact, Forest School can often give supposedly ‘challenging’ or ‘challenged’ children somewhere to absolutely flourish. It can bring formerly reserved individuals out of their shells and give them self-confidence and somewhere to have a voice. It can give others somewhere to feel more free … and free to be themselves. Some will realise they have skills they didn’t even know they had; leadership or critical thinking skills, for example.

More than anything though, Forest School is fantastic fun and somewhere that social bonds, social skills and life skills are developed absolutely naturally. It’s where learning, exploration, creativity and imagination combine with often remarkable results. As such, Forest School is priceless, when you think about it.

A Forest School place for your child in Birmingham

If you are interested in a Forest School place for your child in the Birmingham area, Leaps & Bounds Day Nursery can help. Our nursery/pre-school in Edgbaston offers Forest Schooling in the B16 postcode, so is ideal for those looking for Forest Schools near Birmingham, Egbaston, Harborne, Ladywood, Bearwood and Smethwick. Call 0121 246 4922 or contact us here for more details and we’ll be delighted to help.