Outdoor learning at forest school

Forest school is lots of fun, but where, might you ask, is the educational value in this? Well, outdoor learning spaces have the potential to provide engaging and stimulating learning experiences. This can be through visits to places such as woods, wildlife reserves, farms, the countryside or the seaside.

Forest school is very popular among primary schools across the UK. It is a form of outdoor learning in which children engage in a range of activities in a natural environment through which they learn about nature and the environment, engage in creative activities, build dens, light fires, and have the chance to develop skills over repeated sessions. At the same time, they are also learning to cope in challenging environments, often through engaging in team work and in so doing developing social skills, resilience and perseverance. They are also challenged to use natural resources in imaginative ways as they seek to improvise in creative games and den building.

Children playing on branches of a fallen tree (Credit: Frances Harris)
Children playing on branches of a fallen tree (Credit: Frances Harris)

So much more than the national curriculum

While outdoor learning at forest school has the potential to teach children about biology, geography and other national curriculum topics, in fact, learning outdoors provides an opportunity to teach so much more than the national curriculum. When learning outdoors, children interact differently than when in the structured and rule-based classroom. They are freer to move, to make more noise and to behave differently. The outdoor environment challenges children in different ways, so that those who do well in the classroom are not always the same as those who thrive outdoors. Personal, social and emotional development are seen as being at least as important, if not more so, than the national curriculum.

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Building a bird's nest (credit: Frances Harris)
Building a bird's nest (credit: Frances Harris)

Facilitating learning

The challenge is that outdoor learning spaces are less predictable in terms of weather, resources, and how children relate to the environment and each other. The classroom model of teachers organising learning and children engaging in specific tasks changes: leaders need to be prepared to adapt their activity plans to situations and opportunities as they arise. The environment raises questions from children, and offers new opportunities for children and their teachers to explore and engage in learning. This requires a flexible approach, and forest school practitioners see their role as facilitating children’s learning by offering a choice of activities and allowing children to engage in play-led and peer-led learning.

Inspiring future environmentalists?

For environmentalists, there is a hope that through the engaging and memorable opportunities offered outdoors children will gain a deeper understanding of their environment, an attachment to place, a connection to nature, and a desire to care for the environment in the future.

Whether or not outdoor learning and forest school encourages children towards more environmental futures, for many children, and their teachers, the activities provide a welcome change from the formality of the classroom and the rigours of the national curriculum and its associated assessment pressures.

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