An increasing number of early years practitioners are adopting the forest school approach to support outdoor learning in their provisions. The forest school experience offers many benefits to young children and encourages development across all areas of the EYFS, writes Elizabeth Walker.

Reconnecting children with nature

Recent research reveals that three-quarters of UK children spend less time outside than prison inmates, and time spent playing in parks, woods and fields has reduced dramatically. According to a government report, more than 1 in 9 children in England have not set foot in a park, forest, beach or any other natural environment for at least a year. There is now a call to reverse these trends and to reconnect children with nature and the environment. Early years providers are increasingly looking to the forest school approach to develop essential skills through nature-based learning.

What is forest school?

Forest school originated in Scandinavia in the 1950s and is based on the philosophy that children's interaction with nature and the natural world is a very important factor in their development. Forest schools are now fully integrated in the Danish education system and have been in use for three generations.

The development of forest schools in Britain began around 1993, when tutors and students from Bridgwater College in Somerset visited Denmark to look at the pre-school system. They were so inspired by the emphasis placed on child-led outdoor learning that they set up their own forest school in the grounds of their college on their return to England.

The Forest School Association (FSA) defines forest school as an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees. It is a specialised learning approach that sits within and compliments the wider context of outdoor and woodland education.

There are an increasing number of forest schools throughout Britain today despite local authority cuts to these services and they can take on many different forms depending on the needs and the location of the early years provision.

Principles of forest school

The forest school ethos has six guiding principles which were agreed by the UK Forest School community in 2011. Forest school:

  • is a long-term process of regular sessions, rather than one-off or infrequent visits; the cycle of planning, observation, adaptation and review links each session

  • takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world

  • uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning

  • aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners

  • offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves

  • is run by qualified forest school practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.

Developing a forest school

While woodland is the ideal environment for forest school, many other sites can support good forest school practice. Any early years provision can develop a forest school by:

  • employing, or contracting the services of an existing Level 3 forest school practitioner

  • training an existing member of staff to become a Level 3 forest school practitioner

  • working within the principles of forest school

  • identifying a suitable area that can be used either off site using a park, woodland, or other public space, or on site.

Many provisions have very limited outdoor space but are still able to give children the full range of benefits that forest school has to offer by going off site. If early years practitioners do take children off site they must be aware that under some circumstances the site may have to be registered with Ofsted because the duration and frequency of forest school sessions could meet the requirements for registration.

Training is usually the biggest financial commitment in developing a forest school and other costs could include providing appropriate clothing and equipment to ensure that staff and children can be outdoors in all seasons and weather.

Training

The Forest School Association has now launched the first set of nationally recognised professional standards for those delivering forest school training. Following concerns about the variable quality of some forest school training, the FSA has developed a new Quality Assurance Scheme. Early years providers who want to identify a quality forest school training provision can now consult an online map and database of FSA-registered and endorsed trainers. It is anticipated that local authority advisors and Ofsted will use the scheme as a way of signposting that training provision meets national standards.

Benefits

Playing and learning outside improve children’s physical and emotional wellbeing and the forest school experience has been shown to be hugely beneficial for children with a range of emotional and developmental needs. Rather than using classroom resources and equipment, children can use natural materials found in the woodland and enjoy activities such as collecting sticks and leaves, tying knots, making dens, handling tools, using twigs to write in the mud, climbing trees, jumping across stones and building fires.

Forest school can help children to develop:

  • self-awareness

  • motivation

  • empathy

  • social skills

  • communication skills

  • independence

  • self-esteem and confidence

  • physical skills including the development of both gross and fine motor skills

  • problem solving and risk taking

  • resilience

  • concentration

  • knowledge and understanding of the world around them.

Forest school therefore supports the EYFS curriculum and can be linked to other themes being covered at the early years provision or to experiences at home. Parents and carers should be well informed of what takes place at forest school, and inviting them to join sessions reinforces the positive experience for children.

Safety

One of the forest school principles is that learners have the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and themselves. Some early years practitioners may have concerns over managing risk and ensuring children’s safety during forest school sessions and the FSA has produced criteria for good practice including the following.

  • Any forest school experience follows a risk-benefit process managed jointly by the practitioner and learner that is tailored to the developmental stage of the learner.

  • Forest school uses tools and fires where deemed appropriate to the learners, and dependent on completion of a baseline risk assessment.

  • There is a high ratio of practitioners/adults to learners.

  • Practitioners need to hold an up-to-date first aid qualification which includes paediatric and outdoor elements.

  • Practitioners and adults helping regularly at forest school are subject to relevant checks as to their suitability to have prolonged contact with children, young people and vulnerable people.

It is also advisable to check insurance details and to contact the local authority to see if they have any other requirements before taking children off site for forest school sessions. Regular risk assessments must be carried out by the qualified leader to ensure a site is safe to visit, and there should always be high adult-to-child ratios.

Further information

  • The Pre-school Learning Alliance represents the early years sector on the board of the Forest Schools Association (FSA).

  • The FSA is the professional body and dedicated voice for forest school within the UK devoted to promoting quality forest school for all. Its website contains valuable information about forest schools with links to other key resources.

  • The Forestry Commission promotes the sustainable management of trees, woods and forests across England and Scotland.

Last reviewed 30 August 2019