An increasing number of us are becoming more environmentally conscious and looking for ways we can help our children appreciate the outdoors and natural environments. There is also an increasing awareness of the importance of understanding wellbeing and self-development from a young age. One way this has become apparent is through the development and a world wide uptake of Forest Schools. A considerable number of teachers and academics have become interested in this learning style over the past few years. Here we will outline what a Forest School is, explain why it is beneficial for your child.
What is Forest School
We define Forest and Nature School as an education ethos and practice that puts nature and the child at play at the centre of learning. Children and educators build a relationship with the land through regular and repeated access to the same natural space over an extended period of time. (Child and Nature Alliance Canada, 2018)
A Forest School is a long-term outdoor education process that is holistic and learner-led. It allows children to develop themselves through healthy engagement with risk, problem-solving and self-discovery, all within a natural environment in a hands-on and thoughtful manner. All forms of outdoor education are valuable, but Forest Schools have their own philosophies and ethos that benefit children in unique ways.
Forest Schools are delivered through several regular sessions over an extended period of time – ideally weekly over at least a year, to incorporate different seasons. Many Forest Schools are aimed at primary school age children, pre-schools and nurseries, but sessions are highly beneficial for teenagers as well. Although some Forest Schools are stand-alone, some state and private schools may use funding to employ a Forest School practitioner to run sessions for their pupils throughout the year.
The beginnings of Forest School in the United Kingdom as we know it today were in the 1990s, partly inspired by the outdoor pedagogical practices which were already well-established in Scandinavian countries. Forest School practitioners and training centres gained momentum throughout the 2000s in various forms and structures, before the British Forest School Association (FSA) was formally established in July 2012.
As the professional body for Forest School, the FSA aims to promote best practice and provide a governing body for training – protecting and communicating the community-agreed six guiding principles of a true Forest School amongst the backdrop of many other outdoor educational settings.
Archaeologic studies show evidence of humans staying in one place and the emergence of agriculture only 12,000 years ago. Humans have been nomadic wanderers for tens of thousands of years.
Keeping our school nomadic does numerous things which help benefit the community.
Firstly, it allows us to cater to a broader audience. Students living in Dunnville, Ontario may not have the resources to travel to Burgoyne Woods in St. Catharines and vise versa. Having the school operate in different locations each day allows us to have the broadest student base
Being nomadic also allows students to observe the never ending changes in nature. Each location has its own unique eco-system, animal population, and diversity. Going from location to location allows those who wish to make the journey the most broad nature education possible.
Healthy Risk in the Forest & Nature School
Our programs provide an environment that supports children in taking healthy risks during play. our staff use a variety of risk assessment tools to support both planned and spontaneous experiences. Healthy, manageable risks play an important role in the development of children. By challenging themselves, children build resilience, overcome fears, increase self esteem, build physical and emotional competence, problem solve, and learn to keep themselves safe.
Benefits of Participating in Forest and Nature School
- Improved confidence, social skills, communication, motivation, and concentration.
- Improved physical stamina, fine and gross motor skills.
- Positive identity formation for individuals and communities.
- Environmentally sustainable behaviours and ecological literacy.
- Increased knowledge of environment, increased frequency of visiting nature within families.
- Healthy and safe risk-taking.
- Improved creativity and resilience.
- Improved academic achievement and self-regulation.
- Reduced stress and increased patience, self-discipline, capacity for attention, and recovery from mental fatigue.
- Improved higher level cognitive skills.
Forest School Ethos and Principles
The vision of Wild Nomads Forest School is to enable students to have the opportunity to develop themselves in an inquisitive manner and have a positive relationship with the natural world. Wild Nomads Forest School places an emphasis on self-reflection, which equips learners with emotional and social skills that can stay with them into adulthood and permeate into other areas of their life.
What makes Forest Schools different from other forms of outdoor education – such as outward-bound days, general outdoor lessons, bushcraft workshops or groups such as scouts – is that practitioners adhere to six guiding principles which are agreed by the UK Forest School community. Even though we are located in Canada, You can read about these six principles below, where we also explain what Forest School sessions involve.
1. Sessions are delivered on a long-term basis
Forest School sessions are supposed to be regular and over a long enough period of time – not just a few one-off workshops. As a minimum, the FSA suggests at least 24 weeks, over at least two terms, at least two seasons and a minimum of two hours per session. However, many groups continue for years. This length of time is required to allow for the establishment of boundaries to feel safe and secure, the development of trust, and the deeply-rooted process of observation and self-reflection that is critical to all forest school sessions, for both practitioner and learner.
2. Sessions should be risk-aware, not risk-averse
Forest School has an emphasis on learning through play, where children have the freedom to try things out. Practitioners suggest playful, meaningful activities which nurture the instinctive human ability to learn through overcoming a risk, challenge or problem. Children may also be taught how to safely use tools like knives and axes for whittling or chopping wood, and how to light and safely be around campfires. However, risk in the context of Forest School is about more than just physical danger of using sharp tools or campfires – it also includes social and emotional risk; for example, through embracing something new or confronting the fear of looking silly.
3. Forest School is invested in holistic development of the participants
Holistic means ‘whole’ – and Forest School is about practitioners enabling the development of the whole person. This includes:
- Emotional development. Periods of reflection are important parts of all forest school sessions and help children to expand their emotional vocabulary and understand how they feel (emotional intelligence).
- Spiritual development. This is not necessarily religious, but refers to having a sense of belonging to the wider world, being part of something bigger than yourself, and your connection to nature.
- Intellectual development. Knowledge is provided in context with situations as they arise and creates a thirst for learning.
- Social development. Consistent meetings with the same group of children means that social connection is gained through shared experiences and goals. Children are able to choose whether to work together or separately.
- Physical development. Both fine motor skills and gross motor skills are developed in the outdoor environment, as well as stamina and positive experiences in ‘bad’ weather.
- Communication and language development. Working together encourages communication and develops skilful expression of thoughts and ideas, as well as the ability to listen to others. Reflection activities increase a child’s ability to understand and describe their internal state, wants and needs.
Forest School practitioners aim to develop these aspects in a low-intervention manner rather than instructing the children to think or act in a certain way. The development is encouraged instead by measures such as raising interesting questions, being a role-model for behaviour, and allowing children to self-discover and self-regulate.
4. Forest School should take place in a natural wooded environment where possible
Embedded within Forest School is awareness and appreciation of the natural world. Sessions are intended to take place in a natural environment, ideally with trees, enabling use and interaction with natural materials in activities. The outdoor environment is key to providing a different situation for children, where the space is contained but not constrained.
5. Forest School should be run by qualified Forest School practitioners
Facilitating the complex learning opportunities of Forest School and providing supported risk in the outdoor environment to a group of children is a difficult thing to do. Therefore, Forest School sessions need to be run by an appropriately trained individual.
The British FSA states that practitioners should be equipped with the skills required to provide good quality sessions. These include practical skills, first-aid, teaching skills, risk-benefit analysis, how to perform site checks and environmental impact awareness. It also trains leaders in the fine art of balancing guidance and structured activities with the self-learning ethos of Forest School. Practitioners are also required to be very reflective themselves, to continually adapt and change with their group and learn from experience.
6. Forest School is learner-centred with learner-based outcomes
There is little direct curriculum in Forest School. Rather, learning is intended to be a co-operative process between the practitioner and the participants through a system of observation, reflection and communication. This system enables the discovery and development of unique outcomes which are specific to each learner and may cover any part of the holistic development. One key message is that progress in Forest School is process-based, not goal-based.