There’s a growing trend in primary schools for getting children into the world outside, come rain or shine, to get hands-on with the natural environment. It’s known as the forest school movement, and while it may seem a new trend in education, it’s steeped in history.
The foundations of forest school were laid in the early 1900s, with the creation of young people’s groups like the Scouts and Woodcraft Folk, which focused on youth camps and outdoor skills. In 1914, London’s first ‘open air nursery’ was launched for children from the slums, and outdoor learning and play has been a fundamental part of early years education in Scandinavia since the 1950s.
In the UK, the forest school movement began to emerge in the UK in the early 1990s, but it’s only in the past decade that it has really gathered force. So what does it involve, and how do children benefit?
‘Forest school is essentially outdoor, nature-based learning that focuses on the holistic development of the child. ‘In forest school, activities are provided, but rather than being adult-led, each child chooses and tailors the activity to suit them, while we observe their preferences and development. You flow with the energy of the day and follow what children want to do.’
Lots of schools arrange occasional outdoor activities for pupils, but forest school is a regular, long-term process, rather than a one-off. Typically children will attend forest school sessions six to 12 times a year, ideally throughout the four seasons.
Despite the name, forest school can take place in any natural outdoor environment, which may be on school premises or in the local area. ‘Forest schools work with the resources they’ve got: the wilder and more natural the better. ‘Ideally it would be held in woodland, but it could be a meadow, a grassy park with a few trees, or even a beach.’
Forest school is child-centered with a high adult to child ratio. Observation, rather than direction, is key, and children learn to care for the natural environment through their activities.
Currently, forest school is more common in rural areas, and tends to involved involve the youngest children in schools, in Nursery and Reception classes. ‘However, it has been used with great success for older children with behavioral difficulties, even in secondary schools.
Forest school helps children develop many skills that are hard to teach in the classroom. ‘It’s very physical so it encourages children to be active, with lots of activities to develop both fine and gross motor skills.
Children learn to assess, appreciate and take risks, making sensible, informed decisions about how to tackle the activities and experiences they encounter. ‘They’re learning to be self-sufficient and take care of themselves, which boosts their confidence and self-esteem. ‘Through trial and error they learn to deal with failure and develop the resilience to keep trying: a vital skill in the classroom as well as outside.’
Forest school ties in with many areas of the EYFS Curriculum. For example, being outdoors year-round helps children learn about weather and the seasons, studying mini beasts and plant life, and working on tasks like den building and woodwork enabling each unique child to demonstrate their characteristics of effective learning.
Children also benefit from the simple act of being outdoors. Research has shown that it improves mental and spiritual health, communication skills and social relationships, among other things. ‘Connecting with nature helps children feel part of the world.'Just being outside in nature is calming, and you can see that in how children behave.'
An Introduction to Forest School
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