Thursday, 20 January 2011

Reflections on Forest Schools

In the last few weeks I have been working with people who are really trying to hone down their personal Forest School ethos statements. This has been an ongoing journey for me too and I thought I would share with you a little bit of that journey and extracts from my reflective diaries. 

I first took part in Forest School training in 2004. Before then I had been doing lots of wonderful work, where I got to play in woodlands with children and I went into Forest Schools thinking this was a qualification that just underpinned the experience I already had, which was almost true. But a significant element of what was taking place had escaped me. I saw that children were enjoying themselves and we were having fun but I had underestimated the impact we were able to have on children's lives. My reflective diary from that time says:

 "Affected by the thought that I am creating an environment in which children can 'open windows and doors' but I hadn't noticed this extra receptivity" "I know I have fully considered the effect of what I do and the relationships that the children foster with the natural environment, but I don't think I realised the impact on the emotional (and social) side of the work I do and my responsibility to the children's emotional well-being. How this realisation effects me in the future will be interesting to see."

This is one of the critical ways in which Forest School differs from all the other wonderful outdoor play and learning that takes place. There is so much good stuff that goes on in lots of schools, settings, uniformed groups and clubs but Forest Schools practitioners have this awareness of the social and emotional  impact and the outcomes for each individual child. 

The way that the practitioner develops this awareness is through their own training. A number of accredited Forest School training routes exist and the newly emerging UK Forest School National Governing body will be consolidating these. All Forest Schools should be delivered by trained practitioners. Again this doesn't mean that other people don't and shouldn't work outdoors with children. Lots of excellent good quality outdoor play and learning takes place, in lots of different settings and environments, but the deep level of knowledge that practitioners gain through training is what makes Forest Schools unique. 

What each person learns from Forest School training is individual, each person who a Forest School course arrives with their personal set of strengths and passions and, through the training, develops these. In 2008 I undertook  some further Forest School training. My reflective diary from that time:

"When I look at my life to date, the treehouses we had and the tree climbing we did as kids and wildflower walks with mum, the places I lived in my teens and early twenties, cooking on fires, collecting and chopping wood, living close to the earth and trees. Then getting jobs and work with kids, working for the Wildlife Trust, and now managing and teaching others about quality play provision, there should be nothing that I haven't the mental or physical resource for somewhere. Find the time to find it. Forest School is drawing back together those strands that have become a bit frayed of late."
Me as a smaller person, still with a stick in my hand.

I have noticed when I have been delivering Forest School training courses that this is the same for others. Their interest in the ethos is borne out of long and deep experiences but honing all that understanding and turning it into confidence takes time. 

This brings together two of those strands; On one hand the holistic development of individual children, child-centred learning and learning through play. Helping children increase their abilities and their capacity to learn, and my role in this, my own pedagogic approach. Then on the other hand the skills. That practical knowledge and ability using real tools and fire. The understanding of the environment you are in and your impact on it and how to make sure that the children you are with are kept safe from serious harm and getting the most out of that environment

That environment has a crucial part to play. Forest Schools are called Forest Schools for good reason. The woodland has an equal role in initiating activity, a role it shares equally with the children and with the adults. (I explore this more in this post here.) A woodland by it's very nature offers a lot; twigs, leaves, stones and cones. It is its own renewable resource for discovery. Simon Nicholson's Theory of Loose Parts (1971) is a real influence on my thinking in this area. As an architect he observed that the more flexible an environment was, the more open ended the resources in it, the more this promoted creativity in the way people used it. It's like when a child plays with the box rather than the gift, and a woodland is the gift and the box! The woodland sets up and offers so much. 

"When we crossed the stream into the woods, people's energy levels changed, everyone was excited to be in a bigger more flexible space." "It is only a little strip of woodland but it changes the atmosphere so dramatically." (reflective diary 2008)

The other environment that offers so much affordance is the beach, Nicholson gives beaches as an example of an environment that is naturally rich in loose parts for play. It will be interesting to see how the Beach Schools qualification develops nationally. It has shared ethos to Forest School but looks at transferring that to the different environment. 

The other critical factor is the time that this takes. Forest School programmes seek to work with children for the long term, giving them the time and space to develop their levels of comfort and understanding of what is possible in the woods. The first time a child has been in a woodland it can take time for them to notice the potential. Even for children who feel more confident there is a process of opening up and emerging group dynamics. It takes time to build your understanding of that child and how they are in the woods. This is true for me as a practitioner coming to work with a new group, but it is also true for the teachers, They can work with a child all year but each sees a different side to that person when they are in the woods. 

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately,
 to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach,
 and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Henry David Thoreau



  1. Thank you for this post! I would love to visit a Forest School to experience first-hand what happens. I live in Brooklyn, NY. I'll continue to follow your postings, thanks so much.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I gave you a blog award today:

  3. Stopping by from Child Central Station. Checking out the other award winners. congrats.
    Love this post and the way you describe these schools.

  4. Hi Lily

    I'm in the middle of writing up a series of case studies on the theme "Woods for Learning". What is interesting is the variety of opinions and responses about Forest School. One HT felt it gave staff the confidence to give children more challenge, autonomy and risk in their play. Today I visited another nursery which had undergone an alternative form of training (Nature Kindergarten, based on Norwegian Outdoor Schools), along with another 60 nurseries in one local authority. This approach has been equally effective - their site is amazing - there's cliffs, steep slopes and up to 30 children out in a session supported by staff and parents with a minimum 1:4 ratio.

    In my experience, I've seen a lot of different approaches. I do like Forest School, but I've seen equally good practice elsewhere. I'm grateful for the term in that it's allowed the Forestry Commission to fund lots of training and support in different ways. I really like the progression and habitat variety and pedagogical approach in Sweden with the I Ur och Skur Schools which clearly links to the Friluftsliv philosophy and would like to see more of this adopted in the UK.

  5. Hi Juliet, this is a really interesting response thank you. Like you I have seen lots of good and exciting work outdoors with children. My own learning has been really helped by my Forest School training and I really wanted to share that, especially in the context of completing my own training to become a trainer (whoop!!). Like you I also feel the term is still a useful short hand to describe a certain ethos.

    The reflection and striving to understand what a particular approach has to offer and what it shares with other approaches doesn't stop though! Thanks for sharing the links

  6. ...and a big thank you to Amy of for the awards. I really appreciate them Amy.

  7. I work with children using nature and horticulture as therapeutic mediums and there are definite parallels with the work of some Forest School practitioners.

    Allowing children the space and time to independently explore nature with a focused, caring adult can lead to truly wonderful outcomes for all pupils.

    My work is centred around traumatised or looked after children and nature can provide rich sources of metaphor to allow them to discuss their difficulties within a safe space. I am also currently involved in a project to work with pupils outside to help improve self esteem and mood and to measure the impact this has on academic achievement.

    Nature is a powerful medium and there are great rewards when children get to spend time outdoors with inspirational practitioners. Keep up the fantastic work!!

  8. I personally think that journalist do their job very effeciently. The reflective journal writing is very important and this take time to write well.

  9. Very informative post, thanks for sharing. Need help with writing, finishing, editing, or correcting your Forest School Portfolio? Get reliable Forest School portfolio help with Free Turnitin, Partial Payment, and Unlimited Revisions by a team of highly professional and experienced experts.


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