What is Forest School?
In the UK model of Forest School, there are 6 principles which define Forest school and differentiate it from other methods of outdoor learning. Though Forest School has aims that are in line with other outdoor learning approaches, there are several key differences in methodology. The 6 Forest School principles can be summarised by the following:
1. Forest school involves frequent and regular contact over an extended period of time
One fundamental difference in Forest School is the frequency of sessions, which should be at least every other week for a prolonged period of time. Other outdoor learning approaches may be one-off or infrequent visits. This difference is fundamental because it allows time for the children to become familiar with the outdoor area and feel more comfortable to initiate, explore and expand upon previous learning (Cree, 2009). Maintaining repetitive contact also supports the ultimate goal of Forest School, which is to create permanent change for the individual participants. This is a process that requires time.
2. Forest School sessions take place in woodland or setting with trees
Ideally, Forest School sessions will take place in a woodland, though sites with just a few trees are usable. Woodlands and trees provide a variety of resources and scope for participants to explore, engage, and experiment with. The use of natural resources is fundamental to Forest School as it stimulates and promotes creative development. Natural resources act as sources of inspiration for participants to build upon their own creative thoughts and ideas (Forest School Association, 2011)
3. Forest School promotes holistic development for all those involved
Forest School focuses on holistic development, which encompasses aspects of social, physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development. Rather than breaking it down into separate elements, Forest School attempts to engage all areas of development at the same time. This is because the areas interact with each other, making it more effective to recognise the significance of the whole picture rather than focusing in on the individual parts. For example, “working on a simple task such as setting up a house for a woodland creature – be they make believe or real, involves physical (gross and fine) development along with creativity, mathematical, social, communication and even spiritual aspect regarding 'what is home' – a truly holistic experience not bound by traditional 'school subjects'” (Bishops Wood Handout, 2015, p.2). What's learned through Forest School can hopefully be applied to other aspects of the participants life at home, school, and within their social groups. There is more investment in the participants overall well being in Forest School, with the aim to foster “resilient, confident, independent, and creative learners” (Bishops Wood Handout, 2012).
4. Forest School provides opportunities for participants to take supported risks
Forest School also facilities risk-taking in which children are encouraged to explore and interact with their environment so they can learn how to keep themselves safe. Risky activities include the use of fire and tools. Forest School leaders risk assess their activities and site seasonally and daily to ensure a safe environment, but not one that is risk-free. By taking risks, children learn to respect their environment and manage their own risks, an essential skill necessary for them to navigate through life (Knight, 2009). This follows the risk-benefit process, in which partaking in a risky activity generates beneficial opportunities for learning and development that make the risk worth taking. A higher adult to child ratio is usually observed in Forest School to ensure support in a higher risk environment.
5. Forest School is led by a trained and qualified Forest School practitioner
Another key difference between Forest School and outdoor learning is Forest School is led by a trained Level 3 practitioner. This ensures that all the Forest School principles are fully understood by the leader and applied in practice. You do not need to hold a qualification to provide children with outdoor learning experiences. Any teacher, group leader, or parent can take a child or groups of children outdoors to partake in learning activities. These experiences and opportunities are valuable too, but would not be considered 'Forest School'. The qualification also ensures aspects of health and safety have been considered. For example, the Forest School Leader should be a qualified paediatric and outdoor first aider and all adults helping at Forest School should have had relevant background checks to ensure suitability for prolonged contact with children and vulnerable people (Bishops Wood Handout, 2012).
6. Forest school employs a learner centred approach
The pedagogy of Forest School is based on child led learning where the activities are initiated by the learner rather than dictated by the leader and/or curriculum. The approach is more democratic in which the Forest School leader is on a level playing field with the learners and all those involved are made to feel they have something to contribute to as well as learn from each other. One key element to achieving this is through the role of the leader as 'observer'. This is where the Forest School leader takes on “the responsibility of not interfering, but observing and letting the learning flow” (Cree, 2009, p.23). A Forest School leader will be able to stand back, encouraging the child to experiment and learn things for themselves as opposed to being directly taught by the leader or another adult. Learning at Forest School is encouraged through play, in which the children are given, “the time and space for making their own choices and expressing their creative spirit” (Knight, 2009, p.17). This is an essential and vital aspect of development and Forest School provides a space for it.
It is often commented that Forest School provides participants with “time” and “space” to learn. I feel this summarises how Forest School differs from other methods of outdoor learning really well. The “time” comes from regular contact, week after week, in which participants can work at their own pace rather than being rushed to finish by a deadline. The “space” is both internal and external. Being outdoors provides an environment without walls in which we physically feel we have more room to move about. Additionally, “space” comes from allowing the learning to be learner-initiated - there is room for freedom of thought and creativity from within. Through building relationships, both with ourselves and others, engaging in reflection, and creating a community for learning, Forest School provides a truly unique outdoor learning experience.
For more information about Forest School and for the full principles and criteria for good practice, visit the Forest School Association website at www.forestschoolassociation.org.
Bishops Wood Handout (2012) Principles Document.
Bishops Wood Handout (2015) Holistic Development and Forest School.
Cree, J (2009) '”Forest School and Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto” What makes it different from all the other outside the classroom educations?' Horizons 46, 22-25.
Forest School Association (2011), Full Principles and criteria for good practice, 09/11/2015.
Knight, S (2009) Forest Schools and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years, SAGE Publications Ltd, London.