Forest schools

Downsman Article

 A large part of my work for the past 20 years has been education, I am after all a teacher. I have made a conscious choice to work outside the classroom. This has taken a variety of forms environmental education, sustainable transport choice promotion (London), Conservation, Living history education and now forest schools.

Forest schools is an approach which has gained massively in popularity over the last 10 years. This is the antithesis of modern trends in education towards increased assessment which focus upon the ‘core skills’ of literacy and numeracy.

So what is the forest schools approach and how does this enhance educational experiences?

In 2002 an attempt was made to define forest schools ‘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.’

Following the formation of the forest schools association in 2011 the following was drawn up

1: Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit. Planning, adaptation, observations and reviewing are integral elements of Forest School.

2: Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.

3: Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners

4: Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.

5: Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.

6: Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning

When we use the word learner centred, what we really mean is play, we all learn at our best when playing adults and children alike. We all know that state when we are totally absorbed in an activity this is when we are learning at our best,this has been proven by various educational psychologists, Our goal as forest school tutors is to promote opportunities for this by supporting and facilitating play in a non interventionist style.

This is done through flow learning techniques, with reflection, risk awareness, active games, team working, peer review, routine and free play sessions carefully balanced to enhance learning.

One of the most important outcomes of forest schools is its ability to promote growth in emotional intelligence, which is increasingly seen as more of an indicator of success than IQ or academic attainment.

New fangled ?

The forest schools approach to education is by no means new having its roots in the 19thcentury Romantics movement (awe of nature and the sublime creativity, freedom and innocence of the child) this influenced Philosphers and peadgogists of the time leading to the foundation of educational and out of school activities which were child centred whilst promoting independent learning through play.

At the same time the factory and work houses of the industrial revolution were subject to a series of act of parliament starting with the peel factory act, and developed further by lord Shaftesbury who pushed through further acts. These limited the hours children could work. It also imposed the requirement of employers to provide education for children in the three r’s.

In the 1950s the ‘romantics’ approach was adopted by nurseries in Germany and schools throughout Scandinavia to 7 years of age, in the UK their were nods towards this with a more child centred approach to learning after the foundation of the comprehensive schools system

In the 1970’s and 80’s in an endeavour to increase Literacy and numeracy skills a more teacher led outcome centred approach was adopted with the National curriculum as its centre piece. As a reaction to this there was a growth in ‘alternative ‘education models such as Montessorri, Wardorf Steiner schools and a natural education / forest schools approach to learning. By 2008 some balance was introduced as a child-led approach was universally adopted through the early years foundation strategy up to 5 years.


I’m not sure about you but I feel that the time I spent ‘playing out in the fields and woods’ as a child was massively valuable to my upbringing / development. Forest schools gives a way in which this can still be done in our risk averse society by giving children the ability to assess risk, build in self confidence and independence. In a way that is monitored and safe.

From an educational prospective it helps to build upon the skills that schools are finding it harder and harder to squeeze into their teaching schedule, the positive outcomes are now well documented by both pedigogists and psychologists. I hope that ultimately it will be acknowledged that attainment levels will only show significant improvement through the integration of the teaching methods employed within forest schools.

Welcome to the Forest School Association website


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