What is Forest School

Forest School is a child-centred inspirational learning process, that offers opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. It is a long-term program that supports play, exploration, and supported risk-taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner-inspired, hands-on experiences in a natural setting.

Forest School has a developmental ethos shared by thousands of trained practitioners around the world, who are constantly developing their learning styles and skills to support new and imaginative learners. Its roots reach back to the open-air culture, friluftsliv, or free air life, seen as a way of life in Scandinavia where Forest School began. It arrived in the UK in 1993 and has grown from strength to strength since then.

The process helps and facilitates more than knowledge-gathering, it helps learners develop socially, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and intellectually. It creates a safe, non-judgemental nurturing environment for learners to try stuff out and take risks. Forest School inspires a deep and meaningful connection to the world and an understanding of how a learner fits within it. Our approach to risk means that learners constantly expand on their abilities by solving real-world issues, building self-belief and resilience. We believe that risk is more than the just potential for physical harm, but a more holistic thing, there are risks in everything we do, and we grow by overcoming them. Forest School, therefore, helps participants to become, healthy, resilient, creative, and independent learners.

Credit to The Forest School Association for this information.

A History of Forest School.

Forest School in the UK may seem a new movement. In reality, it is based on a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back at least to the 19th century.  Philosophers, naturalists, and educators in Europe and the UK such as Wordsworth, Ruskin, Baden Powell, Leslie Paul (who founded the Woodcraft Folk in 1925), Kurt Hahn (who founded Gordonstone and was the inspiration for our first outdoor education centres), Susan Isaacs and the Macmillan sisters all laid the foundations for what is known as Forest School today.

During the 1970s and 80s, our education system moved toward a more teacher/outcome-centred approach in an attempt to improve numeracy and literacy, in particular, and we had the introduction of the national curriculum.  Somewhat in response to this, there was a growth of ‘alternative’ educational models in the 1990s and it is in this context that Forest School emerged.

In 1993 a group of nursery nurses at Bridgwater College, Somerset, visited Denmark to look at the pre-school system. The open-air culture (‘friluftsliv’) is seen as a way of life in Scandinavia and permeates the early years of education.  The Bridgewater nursery nurses returned enthused by the largely outdoor, child-centred/play-based pedagogy employed by the Danish pre-school pedagogues. They started their own ‘Forest School’ with children attending the college creche.   They observed children, watching their own creativity blossom and ‘scaffolded’ skills and ideas. Their entire practice was impacted as a result.

In 1995 the college developed a BTech in Forest School and started to offer it to early years practitioners in particular.  Many involved in outdoor learning saw this as something that built on the UK’s outdoor learning heritage and soon Forest School was being offered around the UK.

From 2000 Wales and various local authorities in England took up Forest School. Other authorities soon followed suit including Shropshire, Norfolk and Warwickshire. At the same time, other training providers emerged and in Wales, a group of trainers from England and Wales, with the support of the Forestry Commission in Wales, developed the Open College Network (OCN) qualification, which began in 2003.

In 2002 a network of practitioners held the first national conference at which a UK definition of Forest School was formulated: ‘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.’

Along with this, the network also identified some of the key features of Forest School:

  • It is run by qualified level 3 practitioners.
  • It is a long-term process with regular contact with a local wooded environment (preferably over the seasons).
  • It follows a child-centred pedagogy where children learn about and manage risk.
  • It has a high adult: child ratio.
  • Observations of the learners are key to enabling scaffolding of the learning.
  • Care for the natural world is integrated.

On 7th July 2012, the Forest School Association (FSA) was launched at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire as the new professional association for Forest School and the governing body for training.  Directors were duly elected and the work of the FSA began!

Taken from The History of Forest School – articles by John Cree and Mel McCree – as published in Horizons Magazine searchable on the IOL archive.