Forest school has been growing steadily in the UK and abroad since staff from Bridgwater College headed out to see the excellent examples in Denmark in 2003. Building on a strong tradition of outdoor learning and holistic approaches to education, forest school has been a grass roots movement.
Creating forest school standards
The rich variety of woodland habitats in the UK is matched by the rich variety of approaches offered by members of the Forest School Association (FSA). These trainers and forest school practitioners came together from a wide variety of backgrounds and have the common aim of engaging as many educators and children as possible in this inspirational, learner-centred process.
Inevitably, there has been disparity over the quality of training and assessment expected, and even what forest school looks like when a group is out in a wood. The FSA has developed two membership schemes to recognise trainers and providers whose programmes exemplify the ethos and principles agreed and published in 2012. Members of the FSA and forest school trainers from across the UK have also been involved in reviewing and developing a new suite of forest school qualifications.
To become an endorsed trainer with the FSA I had to show how my training reflects and promotes the forest school ethos and principles through:
managing the impacts of forest school on any woods I work in
facilitating deep connections between people and the environment
encouraging sustainable practices that will help the next generation care for our planet
continuously maintaining and developing my professional practice.
Benefits for children
Both of the membership schemes help practitioners consider how they are meeting the principle of providing experiences for challenging and risky enough play. Ofsted is reportedly concerned that many children under 5 are not getting enough physical challenge for their natural development and wellbeing. This Nursery World article states almost a quarter of 5 year olds are overweight or obese and that funded research will look into this issue of physical challenge.
The health of our woodland and the health and wellbeing of our children is causing us great concern. It makes sense that those of us who care about both correlate the two wherever we can. Forest school gives us the perfect way to do that.
Forest school inspires children and young people to value the biodiversity and habitats within their site, to develop a strong sense of guardianship and understand the value of sustainable woodland management whilst learning the uses of the plants and timber around them.
Sharing food, stories and conversation around the fire along with enjoying rich, playful experiences gives all members of a forest school group a sense of belonging to each other and to the woodland. They learn that they are privileged to share this time each week with the animals, birds, plants and trees.
Giving feedback on the process of becoming a registered provider with the FSA, the headteacher of Sparkwell School in Devon said, “Forest School is a key part of our ethos and values and we believe it is a vital part of our children's education and character development.”
The forest school leader at Ellel St John School in Lancaster said her school was “delighted to become an introductory forest school provider - and one of the very first in the country!…We are out in all weathers and all seasons - climbing trees, cooking on the fire, playing in the trees (and the mud) and learning new skills. Our forest school is child centred and follows the needs of our children - emotional, physical, intellectual, social, spiritual, and cultural. Forest school makes a huge difference to the health, happiness and achievements of our children.”
The future of forest school
In the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, a lot is made of our natural capital, with a clear focus on the value of ‘connecting people with the environment for health and wellbeing’. Communicating the benefits of nature connection is a significant part of effective forest school training and leadership. Understanding the positive outcomes invariably leads to us valuing something more.
If headteachers, governors, parents and woodland owners are informed about the vast benefits of quality, long term forest school programmes for children, young people and families, they will be in a position to take more effective, even braver, decisions about funding and time for forest school and outdoor learning. They will also continue investing in the ongoing training of their forest school staff, ensuring that they continue learning, stay abreast of legislation and best practice and refuel their passion for the valuable work they are engaged in.
It is wonderful that the Woodland Trust is actively encouraging the use of its sites for forest school and supporting schools with the Green Tree Schools Award and tree planting. We are excited to be working together for the future health of our planet and the wellbeing of all.