What is Forest School?

In summary, Forest School education puts participants in an outdoor environment and provides opportunities to develop a broad range of skills through a wide variety of activities. It is participant-lead, meaning that sessions are structured in a way which encourages participation and exploration and does not enforce rigid programmes or schedules.

Forest School provides freedom and flexibility in learning, encouraging participants to find their own path.

In More Detail…

Forest School learning turns traditional classroom-based learning on its head. Forest School sessions should provide a learning environment in which participants are able to explore and learn for themselves, at a pace which whilst sometimes challenging is also comfortable.

The Forest School approach puts the child (or adult!) at the centre of their own learning. Activities are designed to give participants the capacity to choose and pursue activities or ways of doing things which suit their particular needs or preferences.

Whilst key information (boundaries, safety, particular techniques, intended outcomes) will still be transmitted from facilitator to student, Forest School gives the recipient the capacity to choose how they respond to the instruction. Participants can take their own direction which will often lead to deep learning, high satisfaction and a diverse range of outcomes.

Forest School learning is both collaborative and individual. Students can benefit from tasks which allow them to stretch their individual skills and knowledge, and also learn as part of a group which promotes the consideration and inclusion of others’ ideas.

Holistic Development

Holistic development is the process of learning which encompasses an individual’s social, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual growth. Holistic development aims to integrate and encompass various aspects of the learner’s nature, rather than seeing them as distinct and separate. Holistic development is an approach to learning and education which is not merely based on the transmission of information from teacher to learner, but a process through which the learner engages with the subject matter on a variety of levels.

Forest School provides an excellent opportunity for holistic development, as learners engage in activities which simultaneously challenge them in several areas. Forest School provides a context in which holistic learning is the norm - where activities are purposefully designed around a holistic ethos. Rather than tackling one aspect of an individual’s development, Forest School leaders facilitate holistic development by providing a framework of activities which provide challenge and opportunity for growth in several areas simultaneously

For instance, an activity may involve working alone - which can be a challenge for those who prefer to work in a team. Likewise, the same activity could involve aspects of teamwork and collaboration, which may challenge a participant socially or emotionally, as well as physically and mentally as a solution to a problem is found.

Den building is a good example of an activity which encourages a holistic approach to learning. Individuals may be required to create a small-scale den of their own design from limited materials and in a limited time, before being asked to share their ideas in a group, come to a consensus and work together to create a much larger structure. This kind of activity will encompass aspects of physical, social, emotional and mental learning. Each participant is likely to display different strengths and weaknesses, giving them an opportunity to develop their weaker areas whilst supporting others through their strengths.

Leaders may observe these strengths and weaknesses and suggest particular roles or tasks for different participants giving them better opportunity to progress in their weaker areas.

Forest School Learning and Self Esteem

Forest School provides a constructive and supportive environment for learners, where value is placed on an individual’s own progress and enjoyment, rather than in the outcome of a session in relation to other members of a group. Self-esteem is developed where learners can see their own development and growth, without concern for their position within a group, academic or otherwise.

The nature of many Forest School activities are open-ended, open to freedom of expression or personal preferences. They are often activities which are not experienced in everyday life, giving learners the opportunity to try things they would not normally be able to participate in.

This environment, in which everyone is a learner regardless of age or experience, is generally highly encouraging. Individuals seek to support each other, share ideas, voice concerns and build on prior knowledge and experience.

In turn, this atmosphere is highly conducive to good emotional development. This is particularly true in children as they see friends succeeding and are encouraged to try something new for themselves. Alternatively they may see others struggling and find themselves offering encouragement and support.

Forest School is a highly positive atmosphere with encouragement and celebration central to learning and development. Sharing in participants’ successes can be a great way of building self-esteem, as well as providing a safe environment to encourage those who do not feel they have succeeded.

Peer review plays an important role in Forest School activities - as individuals are encouraged to feedback about the activities they are engaged in. This can be an excellent way of showing support to those who feel they are less able, whilst giving more able participants the opportunity to communicate ideas which can benefit the whole group.

The holistic nature of Forest School education creates an environment in which the visible outcomes of a session may not tell the whole truth. Simply participating in an activity, or sharing an encouraging word with another participant may be highly important developmental outcomes. When building self-esteem and emotional intelligence it is just as important that these successes are noticed and not just the physical evidence. After all, participation in a specific activity rarely has a solely educational benefit, but usually wider benefits such as team working and problem solving are encountered by the participants.

Forest School Learning Creates Independent, Creative and Reslient Learners

Forest School provides a learning environment in which a child’s naturally inquisitive and questioning nature is used to full advantage. Forest School participants quickly realise that learning through experimentation is highly beneficial. Learners are generally given few verbal instructions - giving them the space to explore their own solutions without being given restrictive direction. In turn this gives participants the confidence to try things, without needing know in advance if they’re going to be successful or not.

When experimentation and learning through experience is encourage, Forest School participants quickly grow in confidence - often trying out lots of ideas over a short period of time and assessing which have the most merit. In turn this results in learners who are confident in exploring multiple solutions and see a lack of instruction, giving them space to follow their own ideas, as a benefit rather than a problem.

Although this new-found freedom can be daunting initially, as more activities are undertaken participants grow in confidence and soon become bolder in their experimentation. Forest School activities often involve some form of low-key communication - explaining features of their design, or giving instruction to other members in a group for instance. Giving learners the opportunity to express their thoughts verbally can give a boost in confidence as ideas are adopted and built upon by the group.

Being able to work independently is just as important as being comfortable working as part of a team. Forest School activities often incorporate elements of both practices - giving learners the opportunity to independently pursue their own ideas. This can often result in creative thinking - as each participant imagines their own solution to a particular problem. This independent learning is highly beneficial, giving individuals confidence in their own ideas which can translate into excellent communication and leadership skills as things develop.

The freedom of the Forest School setting gives individuals the opportunity to grow in confidence and creativity, providing a safe environment in which they are able to learn at a pace that suits them. This results in individuals who are able to learn independently, but who also develop the skills necessary to be a constructive member of a team where communication and an awareness of others is important.

Forest Schools inspires individuals with an excitement and enthusiasm for self-led learning which is often missing in other forms of education, as well as developing skills and experiences which support creative, confident and independent learning in other settings.

Forest School and Learning to Manage Risk

Understanding and being able to evaluate risk is vital to our personal development. Being able to forecast the outcome of a particular action is an important skill in all areas of life - enabling informed decisions and appropriate planning to take place. Forest School is an environment in which risk evaluation and management is experienced as participants undertake their activities.

Many Forest School activities encompass some element of risk - fire lighting being a good example. There is, of course, always a possibility of personal harm when lighting a fire. However, there is a greater benefit in understanding how to go about lighting a fire safely than there is a risk to personal safety in undertaking the activity. To this end Forest School activities are usually planned using a risk/benefit analysis of some kind. Activities are not undertaken in order to expose a learner to risk - rather they are designed to provide an opportunity for learning which may include some element of risk.

It is often easiest to understand risk from a personal perspective before applying it to others, or to a group. To that end, Forest School provides an environment in which personal risk is frequently evaluated, with suitable procedures put in place to mitigate any perceived risk.

When undertaking an activity which involves risk (using a sharp tool for instance), a learner will first learn what risk the activity poses to themselves and how to reduce the risk of personal injury. Once this risk has been understood it may be applied to other individuals, or the whole group.

An individual who is able to understand risk and determine appropriate courses of action is clearly developing socially and mentally - applying what they know about themselves to others within a group. Forest School provides an excellent opportunity to learn about risk and the potential benefits that taking a risk may produce. This understanding can then be applied more generally into the activities of everyday life, as well as specific junctures where an individual must weigh the risk of taking certain actions against the benefits of whatever they are about the undertake.

Those who have learned to handle a little risk well will no doubt reap the reward of being able to forecast and manage greater risk later in life in all kinds of personal and professional scenarios.