Is Forest School defined in the heart or by the hand?
I am definitely not the first one to talk or write about this. This is such a common issue that it almost seems irrelevant to write about as I'm sure many in Forest School circles will say, “I've heard that story before.” But I've decided to write about it anyway because I feel it's important to continue talking about it. Sharing stories helps us support one another, particular if others are experiencing something similar. Also, talking about issues helps us to problem solve. If we stop talking, we might resign ourselves to accepting things as they are, which can stifle any change or progress. So, I'm going to talk about it.
It's one of those stories of a Forest School where the heart is in the right place, but the barriers make it near impossible to adhere to the 6 principles that help define what Forest School is truly about. So then you get that question, “Well, it's not really Forest School then, is it?” That got me pondering, how do you define Forest School – by the heart or the hand? What I mean is, if a leader is doing their best to deliver the Forest School ethos in a situation with severe barriers, the ethos may be in their heart. But in terms of what they are actually able to provide and deliver (by their hand...) it's not... So is it still Forest School?
For example, I've started assisting with a 'Forest School' programme provided by an after-school club. To clarify, it is NOT a Forest School after-school club. It is an after-school club that is attempting to provide Forest School. The trouble is, there are so many barriers to delivering what some people would call 'full-fat Forest School' (Forest School that adheres to the 6 principles).
Here are a few of the barriers we're experiencing:
Time - We have 45 minutes start to finish, which includes the walk to and from site. We are also only able to offer a 5 week programme due to limited staff availability.
Location - The site we are using is a grassy field with a few scattered trees around the edges. There is nowhere to easily put up shelter when it rains. The site has limited natural resources which restricts what activities we can do without bringing resources in with us.
Lack of support & understanding - The support staff don't understand what Forest School is. There are also some who are reluctant to go outside in poor weather.
Paperwork - We need to provide sufficient evidence in pictures and written observations that we are supporting early years foundation stage framework. This creates a pressure to take enough photos and gather enough observations. This places strain on the accompanying adults and prevents them from engaging with and observing all of the children because of the pressure to focus on early years.
Some of these barriers aren't impossible to get around. For example, attempts could be made to get support staff on board by communicating the ethos of Forest School better. The 5 week programme could be extended with more staff resource by either training someone internally or recruiting additional Level 3 Forest School leaders. Perhaps another location could be found with more trees and natural resources. However, these solutions can't just take place overnight. They would all require an investment in time and/or money and we're all familiar with how there is all too commonly 'not ever enough' of those.
It can feel so discouraging that I understand why some would give up on trying to deliver all 6 principles and just do the best they can with what they have. Forest School is in their 'heart', even if it's not being done by their 'hand.' I don't blame them one bit. It's hard to break the barriers alone or with only a few by your side. The situation also makes other Forest School leaders feel discouraged because they look at the 'watered down' version of Forest School being offered and feel that it “shouldn't be called Forest School” because it gives people the wrong idea about it, diminishing the meaning of what Forest School really is. These are significant issues that are not easily overcome.
So, is true Forest School defined in the heart or by the hand? And in the end, does this matter? Is it worth the time spent trying to make this judgement call? And does even trying to answer that question risk dividing a group of people who are ultimately all trying to achieve the same thing? I don't have clear answers to any of those questions. However, it all really highlights to me just how important a network of support for Forest School leaders is to enable us to encourage each other and problem solve how to try to get past the barriers we face together. I'm not saying it's simple to create change or make progress if 'we all just come together'. But I do think an important part of the process is at least to just keep talking about it...