Without a doubt, I could definitely unearth more than five reasons Forest School is great for children. I may even write in the future about five more reasons. Maybe there’s a series in this? I am getting ahead of myself. Before we delve into the five reasons, here’s a brief snippet about the roots of Forest School.
Forest School Roots
The roots of Forest School are found in the Scandinavian open air culture which is seen as a way of life, not just an education add on. It came to the UK in 1993 and has grown from there, with thousands of trained practitioners both here and worldwide. Forest School is a child-centred, inspirational programme offering opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. Ideally held in an outdoor natural setting, learners benefit from learning interpersonal skills, risk management and freedom in play. Our learners are developing confidence and resilience while interacting with their peers through hands on experiences and play. We have a professional body as well here in the UK. The Forest School Association ‘is the professional body and UK wide voice for Forest School, promoting best practice, cohesion and quality Forest School for all.’
Enter Among The Trees. Among The Trees has a vision to inspire and support young people on their journey. We do that through helping them experience newness through creativity, movement and the outdoors. Our director Matt is a trained primary school teacher (PE specialist), Level 3 Forest School Practitioner and Archery GB Instructor and qualified sports coach, bringing all wide ranging skill base to focus in the Forest School environment.
Among The Trees offers Forest School in a variety of formats. After school clubs, experience days in school, longer traditional Forest School sessions and even outdoor tutoring. However, the ideal session for Forest School is a two hour minimum on a regular basis. This allows our learners to build up experience, over time, providing a platform to further growth and learning.
Our sessions have creative elements, games and time for free play, allowing learners to choose and direct their own activity. Free play is facilitated in a supportive environment rich in social, physical, intellectual, communication, emotion and spiritual opportunities.
Five Great Reasons
Forest School takes a holistic approach to people. Understandably, holistic has a wide range of meaning to a wide range of people. With this in mind, I want to consider ‘holistic’ in the sense of impacting the whole person in a variety of ways. In my planning, in my delivery, in my reflection, I want to consider the impact of Forest School on the whole person. How can I help meet the needs of my learners in creative ways? Our mission is help people experience newness through creativity, movement and the outdoors. We us an acronym to aid consideration the holistic elements of planning: SPICES.
Interaction with peers and children of different ages and backgrounds, learning to negotiate and order play, playing together, making friends and taking part in group games.
Develop physical literacy, strength and motor coordination. Exploring different environments, fresh air, improved immune systems, running, jumping, crawling, sliding, climbing and more. Movement is an essential component of learning.
Thinking, decision making, negotiating, conversation with adults and peers, assessing risk and learning new skills.
Talking to peers and adults, asking, sharing about activities they have completed, requesting help, negotiating and imaginative play.
Learning to manage their emotions, building emotional intelligence, developing resilience, enjoying being children and expressing their joy and delight.
Forging a connection with and appreciation of nature, taking time to be still, thinking about our place in the world, learning about being good stewards of the forest and considering a deeper response to the activities we engage in.
This may be the single most important element of the Forest School experience: risk. Not that it’s dangerous and deadly; that’s too far! Rather, risk, managed. Risk, supported. Risk, learnt from. Mortlock’s Zones of Risk provide a helpful overview of comfort, play, learning and danger. The primary relevance for Forest School with Mortlock’s learning theory has to do with where we want to position our learners so that they are in a place to learn. We don’t want to keep them exclusively in their Comfort and Play zones, rather accessing these alongside experiences in the Frontier Zone.
Failure to be exposed to risk and learning how to manage it safely leads people to what Mortlock calls the ‘Misadventure Zone’. This zone is where serious incidents and injuries happen. We, however, envisage learners who are able to mange risk in a supported environment. The skills they learn can be developed in the safe zones of comfort and play, which sets them up for future expansion of risk management.
In assessing where and how we do Forest School, Risk Assessment plays an important role…up to a point. Risk Assessment usually looks at an activity and tends to find reasons not to do it. On the other hand, we have Risk Benefit Analysis. Risk Benefit looks at the risk and the reward gained from taking part. If the benefit gained from participating in an activity outweighs the negatives of it, then we tend to deliver it.
One of the great opportunities learners receive at Forest School is free play. Free play allows learners to organise themselves, make choices and go in directions that adults might never conjure up. The power of play. Leaders taking a back seat will observe a subculture at work when young learners are given time and space to direct their own play.
Ropes become speedy anacondas slithering through the jungle or knotted spider webs wound around trees. Spades and dirt morph into a treasure hunt or construction project. Tree lined circles become inner sanctums for role play and made up games. We afford open ended possibilities when time and space are generously offered.
Art is subjective. I would argue that creativity is also subjective. We all see the world that little bit differently. Allowing time and space for the creative juices to flow is a good thing. A little time for the thoughts to marinade usually results in a tasty dish. Time can either be a stimulus or killer of creativity. In today’s high pressured, results oriented world, having time to make choices is worth its weight in gold.
Amidst flourishing creativity, we need listen to the narrative underpinning the creation. Here lies richer pay dirt to sift. Again, this requires time, if we give permission to explore. I hope that my learners will be able to take this with them back into the classroom and their wider lives. Who knows what creativity we can release with patient, attentive listening?
We underestimate the power of being outside immersed among the trees. There is peace, calm and a deep sense of wellbeing found in this environment. Even exposure to dirt is good. Why, then, are many of us still outdoors adverse? I would emphatically argue two active roles that could play a part in reducing this aversion.
With the prevalence of an indoor culture that has developed in the modern day, the need for people who are confident and comfortable spending time outdoors is critical. A conversation I had with David Harvey (University of Cumbria) brought the concept of the Outdoor Citizens to my attention. Outdoor Citizens refers to those people in our population who are at home outside, have a care for the environment and reap the benefits of an outdoor lifestyle.
These are the kinds of people I want to have a hand in developing – game changers – who have an eye on the bigger picture through making a difference in small things where they are and just love spending time outdoors all year round. I believe that Forest School is a key catalyst in this process. Exposure to and time spent in nature isn’t wasted. Perhaps it’s one of the most important gifts we can give? As it has been said, kids won’t remember their best day of television, so let’s get them outside! You can read a bit more about Outdoor Citizens at the Institute for Outdoor Learning.
Stewardship isn’t a new concept, but one that has been progressively ignored or lost over generations? In reality, good stewardship isn’t a secret formula. At its heart is a notion of participating in something bigger than ourselves and taking responsibility for what you have been entrusted with. I want to see young people grow to be considerate caring people who look after the Earth. Those who are intent on preserving, enjoying and managing native woodland today and into the future. That these people would become the norm and not the exception. Yes, it’s achievable. What is actively required: time, effort and a community. Additionally, grown ups need to step up. Demonstrating good ‘adulting’ means that we need to get on board and do our part in being a good Earth Steward.
Becoming Great Takes Time
Unsurprisingly, no one activity or service is a catch all. What might surprise you is that Forest School can offer learners a broad range of unique opportunities not available anywhere else. Almost straightaway, we can achieve ‘good’. Becoming great – that takes time, struggle and effort. Forest School requires a good chunk of time, on a regular basis, over time, to pave the path to great.
To this end, for something to become great, requires the time to become great. Firstly, getting outdoors offers plenty of fresh air, physical activity and wellbeing as they learn about the natural world. Secondly, play is at the heart of the Forest School ethos, where kids can be kids and organise their own play. Thirdly, learners are able to take on risk in a supported environment, gaining confidence as they progress. Fourthly, creativity is fuelled with time and space to allow for expression. Finally, holistically working towards well-adjusted, free thinking adults who can make a discernible difference to the world they inherit.