A forest school is a type of outdoor education in which children (or adults) visit forests/woodlands, learning personal, social and technical skills. It has been defined as "an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment".
A forest school uses the woods and forests as a means to build independence and self-esteem in pre school-age children.Topics are cross-curriculum (broad in subject) including the natural environment, for example the role of trees in society, the complex ecosystem supported by a wilderness, and recognition of specific plants and animals. However, the personal skills are considered highly valuable, such as teamwork and problem solving. The woodland environment may be used to learn about more abstract concepts such as mathematics and communication. Forest school provision is also called nature schools.
Activities and scope
Schedules within forest schools vary, but a typical approach is to take school children to woodland for once a week, with an initial 6 week observation and assessment period, where a baseline is produced for each child in terms of areas of their holistic development, with particular emphasis on their social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL). Once the baseline assessment has been produced the Forest Schools Practitioner will then continue with the long term programme over the course of the academic year in order to support the child in their development and learning. The practitioner will provide opportunities for each child to develop in areas that have been identified as requiring interventions or support of any kind The duration and frequency of visits influences the degree of outcome; more time spent in forest schools brings greater benefits. Visits should ideally continue throughout the year, allowing children to experience all weathers and the changing seasons.
Forest schools are often "led by the child's interests" (child initiated learning) by comparison to other outdoor education which "starts with an issue agenda or problem for the children to investigate". The main goals of forest schools in primary age children include encouraging curiosity and exploration with all of the senses, empowering children in the natural environment, and encouraging spatial awareness and motor development.
They all learn about flora and fauna but gain more abstract benefits in social skills such as team-building and cooperation, risk management, project planning and recognition of each student's own achievements. By setting children small manageable tasks and giving praise, they are given a good foundation for future learning.
Personal skills such as team-building, goal setting, planning and achieving, increasing cooperation to achieve goals, as well as reviewing and recognising own achievements are developed, particularly in secondary school age students. Consistent with Attention Restoration Theory, children taking part in forest schools have been described as more relaxed. Relationships between the children and each other, with adults, and with the environment, are important
Forest schools are part of the broader area of outdoor education. Outside the school curriculum, this extends to summer holiday camps, Scouting, Outward Bound projects and many other activities. Before children reach school age, Forest kindergartens provide a similar service.
The combination of freedom and responsibility has been particularly beneficial to children who suffer from lack of confidence or whose behaviour is challenging. With high adult:child ratios, children can safely experience activities that are often prohibited, such as climbing trees or lighting fires. The programme allows children to grow in confidence and independence and extend their abilities.
Some children do not perform well in classrooms. They may come from a non-academic family background, may have a short attention span, or may just not be comfortable with the organisation of a teacher standing in front of a group of pupils. Boys in general, prefer to be outside, and learn better in this way.
In a major study in the USA, students with behavioural problems in "Environment as an Integrating Context for Learning" (EIC) programmes caused fewer discipline problems than their traditionally educated peers. Similarly, Forest schools have been found to help children with additional support needs, including Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and autistic children.
Originally a concept developed in Wisconsin in 1927. Laona, Wisconsin claims the world's first school forest. The late H. L. Russell, Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, conceived the idea of school forests. His suggestion was supported by the land use planning committee of Forest County, Wisconsin, and in 1927 a tract of land was purchased for the Laona school forest. The idea for a forest school was implemented by Wakelin McNeel who was a 4-H leader in Wisconsin. The first forest schools were located in Laona, Wabeno and Crandon, Wisconsin.
Sweden and Denmark
Later in the 1950s the idea was introduced in Sweden, Denmark and other countries of Europe. In Denmark it became an embedded part of the curriculum for pre-school children (under seven years) stemming from their småbørnspædagogik, or 'Early childhood education'. Children attending Forest kindergartens were arriving at school with strong social skills, the ability to work in groups effectively, and generally children had high self-esteem and confidence in their own capabilities.
In 1957, a Swedish man, Goesta Frohm, created the "Skogsmulle" concept to promote learning about nature, water, mountains and pollution. With an increasing focus on measurable outcomes, forest schools have gained acceptance as an educational method in their own right. In Denmark, nature schools as well as forest kindergartens are popular with both school teachers and children.
The Biophilia hypothesis argues that a love of nature is instinctive. The term nature deficit disorder, coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, recognises the erosion of this by the urbanisation of human society. Attention Restoration Theory and related psychological work has proven health benefits in reduced stress, improved concentration and improved medical outcomes from surgery. Scandinavian countries, rich in woodland, have maintained the human link more closely. Forest Schools practice is based on up-to date pedagogy and andragogy.
This ethos was introduced to the UK during the 1990s. The growth of Forest Schools has been unprecedented throughout the UK with many practitioners providing quality provision true to the original ethos. Bridgwater College in Somerset was the pioneer of the Forest School concept in the UK in 1994.
Various government and NGO agencies propose the use of woodland as part of the school educational curriculum; for example the Forest Education Initiative and the Forestry Commission. By 2006, there were approximately 140 forest schools in Britain.
The governmental agencies have in some cases been set targets for the use of their resources for education or health benefits, or are focused on the educational outcomes and see forestry as a step towards them.
Many businesses and non-profit organisations facilitate forest school activities. In Wales training and strategic oversight is provided by Forest Schools Wales and government agencies such as the Forestry Commission who have supported research and the development of practical experience for Forest Schools practitioners. In England support has been provided by the Forest Education Network (which has replaced the Forest Education Initiative) to those initiating Forest Schools provision. Such provision is provided within schools using their own trained staff or by external independent Forest School providers. External providers and businesses have vast experience.
Many organisations now offer accredited Forest School training courses to enable practitioners to deliver forest school in their own settings and ensure children and teachers work within rich natural experiences. The OCN Level 3 training course is most widely recognised within the UK.
Use of Terminology
There is no known protection of the terms "forest school" or "forest schools". Within the UK the Archimedes Training Ltd logo, which includes the words "Forest Schools" is protected.
Forest School Association
In June 2012 The Forest School Association was established. It is an independent body, affiliated to the Institute for Outdoor Learning. It is chaired by Jon Cree.
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