Introduction

You might have heard about Forest School before, but if this is the first time you’ve heard the term before during your search for childcare, then get ready to hear a whole lot more about it as your child grows! The forest school approach is growing quickly in the UK with Early Years, Primary and Secondary settings all involved, and the related beach school and farm school approaches are growing in popularity too.

It’s important to understand what you’re signing up for when you sign up for any kind of childcare, but with forest school this is especially true. Here are some of the questions that you may have about forest school. 

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What is Forest School?

As the forest school movement is enjoying a recent surge in popularity it’s easy to mistake it for a new trend in education, but the forest school movement actually has a long history in education.

Pedagogically the forest school movement found its roots in Scandinavian Early Years practice observed by visiting teachers who then implemented something similar in the UK in the early 1990s. However, foundations for the forest school movement were laid much earlier than this, with movements such as scouting and woodcraft folk becoming popular in the 1900s, and even an ‘open air nursery’ in 1914.

The forest school movement draws upon human’s natural propensity to spend time outdoors. Forest school is essentially outdoor, nature-based learning that seeks to develop the whole child, and not just academically.

In forest school, activities are provided, but they are not adult-led, each child chooses whether and how to participate and adapts the activity to suit them. Children largely set the pace, with adults observing their interests and learning. Through their activities and experience children learn about, and to care for, nature.

Despite the name, forest school can take place in any natural outdoor environment, which may be on school premises or in the local area. The wilder, more natural the environment the better, but forest school simply works with what its got and can take place in a woodland, a meadow or a park. Beach school is a similar movement springing up within the UK and taking advantage of our miles of coastland, and Farm School is a concept in its infancy but seeing great success immersing children in the life of a working farm.

What are ‘Forest school sessions’?

Some settings are simply forest schools, meaning that their entire identity is shaped by the forest school approach and pedagogy, with some spending the entire day outside in the forest. Other settings may state that they offer “forest school sessions” meaning that they have an identity outside of forest school, often exist within a building or set of buildings, and operate sessions of forest school style learning periodically.

In order to use the title forest school a member of staff must have received appropriate training, and sessions must be offered regularly over the long term. One-off outings are not considered adequate to meet the definition of forest school. 

What about bad weather?

‘There is no bad weather, only bad clothing’ is almost a Forest School Mantra. Provided children are wearing the right clothes and given protective gear they can be out in almost all weathers.

 A notable exception to this is gale-force wind where branches from trees are likely to fall. Many settings do have indoor locations as well as using the forest, or an arrangement with a local school or hall whereby they can use the indoor space in extreme weather conditions. Ask your potential provider what they do in these circumstances.

Extreme weather is rare however, and most children enjoy being out in the forest come rain or shine!

How is it different to “mainstream” education?

One of the main differences is the way in which activities are offered to children, but not enforced. Learning in forest school is natural, and occurs through the activities that children choose to access. Staff must carefully observe children’s activity and play to determine the kind of progress they are making. In reality, this is very similar to how the EYFS often operates in “Mainstream” settings so might not be that unusual in Early years.

All UK Early Years settings are legally obliged to provide time outdoors on a daily basis, though the amount provided and the quality of the environment can vary greatly.

Forest school provisions offering child care must register with Ofsted and are subject to all of the statutory requirements of the EYFS, including staffing ratios, access to running water and toilet facilities and learning and development requirements too. Most choose to follow the non-statutory guidance, sometimes called ‘Development Matters’ as well as they find that the nature of forest school means that children receive a broad education.

What kind of activities are taught in Forest school settings?

Forest schools are bound by the same learning and development requirements as any other UK setting, but on the whole learning is child-directed and the range of activities that might take place is broad. 

Staff encourage an awareness and respect for nature through activities such as listening to the sounds of nature, foraging, sensory walks, mini beast hunts and careful observation of nature through seasonal changes.

Children may also play wide games, climb trees, jump in muddy puddles, build shelters and use real tools to do woodwork activities.

Fire is an important element of many forest schools and children may learn how to build a fire, light the fire and cook over a campfire. Don’t worry though because safety and teaching respect for fire is also a big focus.

Is Forest School right for my child?

Most children, including though with special educational needs, benefit from plenty of time outdoors and the forest school approach.

How will my child benefit from attending a Forest school setting?

With recent studies suggesting that most British children spend less time outside than prison inmates the sense of alarm is growing and Forest School settings are at the forefront of change.

Being outside has great benefit to babies, toddler and young children as well as adults, teenagers and the elderly. Human beings as a species are designed to spend their time predominantly outside and active as would have been the case in hunter-gatherer societies. This outdoor lifestyle allowed for exposure to the sun and plenty of fresh air. All of these things have significant health benefits for humans. For example, exposure to the sun causes the skin to produce vitamin D which helps the body to absorb calcium thereby increases bone density. Without regular exposure to the sun children are at risk of rickets, and a growing number of cases has led to the NHS issuing advice to supplement from birth. Some Local Education Authorities have issued guidelines about pre-10am sun exposure without sun cream as a means of tackling this growing problem. 

As well as vitamin D, being outside causes the human body to produce more serotonin; the ‘feel-good’ hormone that prevents depression and eases anxiety. For children in the Early Years this lays an important foundation for learning as a calm, happy mind is a mind ready to learn. 

Learning occurs very naturally when small children play outside because it is what they are primed to do.

As well as the practicality of learning to run, balance, and climb a tree that occurs in the outdoor environment. Children have the opportunity to learn everything that these masteries encompass. For example, in learning to climb a tree a child learns to estimate measures of space, to weigh up risk, to assess the best route, to problem solve and change course, a sense of gravity, and self-limitation and so on! The space afforded by the outdoor environment often lends itself to this kind of learning more effectively than the constraints of the indoors.

Playing outdoors also promotes a stronger connection to nature and the environment, allowing children to encounter the weather and the seasons as they change. Forest school helps children develop many skills that are hard to teach in the classroom. 

Is it more expensive?

Generally, no. In the UK Forest schools, and settings offering Forest School sessions, tend to have comparable fees with local competitors.

Your child may need technical clothing which represents an extra cost, though some settings provide this, and others operate great hand-me-down schemes. What is included in the fees is a good conversation to have when looking around settings.

Will my child transition to a mainstream primary school ok?

Yes. Children in forest school settings master a huge array of skills before entering primary school, and with many of these focused on independence, self-help and self-direction they are ready for the challenge of primary school. Many primary schools also offer forest school sessions, so there may be an element of the familiar during the transition.