What is a Forest School?

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It has been a month since I completed the initial week of my Forest School Level 3 course. I’ve had some time to let it all sink in and to reflect on what I learned. Well, that and move house!

A lot of people I speak to generally think that Forest School is another term for ‘outdoor education’. Yes it does fall under that giant umbrella, but it’s also a specific approach to learning. So, what exactly is a Forest School?

Forest School is an ethos based on the process of learning rather than the outcomes. The Forest School approach to learning and play is a long-term process that gives learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop, usually within a woodland or outdoor setting. Both children and adults need the opportunity to explore their thoughts and feelings, and time to learn at their own pace. Forest Schools give learners chance to reflect, engage and develop their understanding of the world around them.

The philosophy was first used by practitioners in Scandinavia where outdoor, child-led pedagogy is the norm in their early years education. After a visit to Denmark in 1993, nursery staff at Bridgewater College in Somerset were inspired to integrate a Forest School into their own practice. Since then Forest Schools have grown in popularity accross the UK and it is becoming more common for learners to take part in regular Forest School sessions.

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Ideally, Forest School sessions would take place in a wooded area as you would have access to all of the natural resources, but any outdoor space is better than nothing! Being in a natural environment encourages the relationship between learners and the natural world. Learners build a positive relationship with the environment and a greater understanding of natural systems and sustainability, as well as experiencing nature throughout the seasons.

Personally, I believe the key feature of Forest Schools is that it is a learner-centered process. Learners are entitled to choose and initiate their own learning and development. A Forest School practitioner creates a community where learners are competent to explore and discover, by providing opportunities for engaging, motivating and achievable activities.

Learners become more independent, self aware, intrinsically motivated and have a much more positive attitude when they have the chance to achieve and accomplish their own goals. Learners’ holistic development is embedded in Forest School practice to build resilient, confident and creative learners.

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Using a billhook to make a wooden mallet with a partner.

Another strand to the Forest School ethos is the opportunity to take risks. This is an area where the natural setting plays an important role. The practitioner designs an environment where learners can challenge themselves and take supported risks that are appropriate to the environment and their capabilities.

The ‘wild’ Forest School setting allows learners to assess risks and to make informed decisions about unfamiliar situations. Tree climbing, stream hopping, why not? Learners develop the skills needed to use their own initiative, face challenges, solve problems and co-operate with others.

Many Forest Schools use tools and make fires with their learners, however this is NOT an essential part of Forest Schools. Practitioners will introduce tools and fire when they feel prepared to enable their learners to do so. There is no age limit on tool use, I was reading recently about nursery children using a billhook and chisel, with adult guidance, to built their own marble run.

In short, a Forest School is a place where learners can play, explore the outdoors and follow their own curiosity in an environment where they are encouraged to do so. As I’m only at the beginning of my journey I’m sure my views will adapt and evolve as I go, but for now this is my understanding.

Any questions or advice you have about Forest Schools, please don’t hesitate to contact me!

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