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What is Forest School?

Forest School is 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.

Forest School is a specialised learning approach that sits within and complements the wider context of outdoor and woodland education.

‘Forest School is a feeling you can’t put into words.' Tonicha, aged 9

The ethos is shared by thousands of trained practitioners across the UK and beyond. Its roots reach back to early years pioneers in outdoor learning and across the sea to Scandinavia.

‘I don’t have ADHD when I`m out in the woods.’  David, aged 14

At Forest School all participants are viewed as:

  • equal, unique and valuable
  • competent to explore & discover
  • entitled to experience appropriate risk and challenge
  • entitled to choose, and to initiate and drive their own learning and development
  • entitled to experience regular success
  • entitled to develop positive relationships with themselves and other people
  • entitled to develop a strong, positive relationship with their natural world

This learner-centred approach interweaves with the ever-changing moods and marvels, potential and challenges of the natural world through the seasons to fill every Forest School session and programme with discovery and difference. Yet each programme does also share a common set of principles, aimed at ensuring that all learners experience the cumulative and lasting benefits that quality Forest School offers.

Principles of Forest School
These principles were first articulated by the Forest School Community in 2002. They were reviewed in 2011 and sent out for a 5-month consultation to Forest School networks and practitioners in all UK nations. They were published on the Institute for Outdoor Learning Forest School SIG page in Feb 2012, and in the minutes of the GB trainers’ network.

  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFS is a long-term process of regular sessions, rather than a one-off or infrequent visits; the cycle of planning, observation, adaptation and review links each session.
  • FS takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
  • FS uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
  • FS aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
  • FS offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
  • FS is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice. See the full principles and criteria for good practice.

This ethos creates learning communities where deep-level learning and progression are the norm. Below, we’ve collected some recent examples of ‘Forest School moments' from some of our directors to illustrate the kinds of things that often happen at Forest School.

You can also visit Forest School myth busting for information on what Forest School is not!

There are 2 main routes to establishing a Forest School programme for your group:

1. Employ (or contract in the services) of an existing Level 3 Forest School practitioner (see 'How to choose a FS leader')
2. Train one of your existing staff to become a Level 3 Forest School practitioner (see 'How to choose a FS trainer')

We aim to provide FSA endorsement programmes for leaders and trainers in the future, but for now the links above should help you. Do join us if you'd like to be part of our efforts to promote quality Forest School for all.

jc swing

Forest School moments . . .
Jon Cree: ‘I observed a group of reception children at a rural primary school recently. One boy made his feelings of connection with nature abundantly clear by showing me his ‘be tree’: the place where, in his words, he could simply be – incredible for a four-year-old.

In the afternoon it was the turn of some year 4 children. It was their sixth session, and it was fantastic to watch. They clearly knew the site well, were aware of their boundaries and understood what was safe and unsafe. So they just went and got on with all sorts of purposeful play: exploring, taking on challenges and using their imaginations, while all the time managing the risks for themselves.

The risks involved may not just be physical: they can also be emotional. In one lovely scene, some boys and girls were acting out an improvised wedding scene complete with mud pie cake. The ‘couple’ had a row and called it off at the last minute – quite a daring and emotionally risky activity for a mixed-gender group, especially given that it was a Church of England school!

The children’s engagement in their projects pointed to a deeper sense of themselves, a sense of place and a meaningful connection with the natural world. Educators could see their children’s confidence grow: for instance, one boy who has a stammer in class was speaking completely clearly when he was out of doors.'

Aline Hill: 'I spent weeks parallel playing with a young girl (4) who had chosen not to speak to any adults at her nursery since she had started six months previously. We painted trees with water, pretended to be birds, and watched slugs and snails making their slow way around the woods. In Week 5 I asked Lily if she thought my clay model snail was finished. She shook her head and mimed feelers. I added them immediately.

In Week 6, I noticed her watching a tree intently. Moving closer, I saw that she was holding a snail up to a thick trail of ants that was streaming up the tree. As if it was the most unremarkable thing in the world,  she asked me  ‘Why aren’t they scared?’

'Because the snail is bigger?' I asked in return. She nodded.

Choosing to lead with information, I told her that snails ate plants and didn't hurt ants so they weren't scared. The ants know that even though the snail is big, there's nothing for them to be scared of. Lily watched the ants for a bit longer. She spoke to me three more times during that session. Over the next few weeks, more and more of the staff heard her voice . . . and she’s still talking!'

Clair Hobson: 'You’ll have to watch this one’ said an accompanying teacher. ‘He has been thrown out of every class in the school – we just don`t know what to do with him.’
Max was 14 and on the Autistic Spectrum – he struggled with relationships and the environment in which he was being taught. The Forest School programme was truly amazing for him and he went from strength to strength over the weeks. His progress was humbling to see as he found his natural strengths – the positive learning experiences gave new opportunities for everyone (teachers as well) to see Max in a different and positive light. He said he ‘felt free’. The positive ripple effect was felt back in school.

A year later, his mother wrote to me. She is studying to become a teacher and wanted to know more about Forest School, as this was the most successful learning experience her son had ever had throughout his education. She wished he could have been with us full time! Of course, if budgets were made available, young people like Max could be!

Jon Cree: 'just last month I was assessing a trainee leader, Laura, in a Dudley reception class with predominantly ‘English as an Additional Language’ pupils. After about 10 minutes, a child grabbed me by the hand.
‘Jon, come and look at my new home.’ (He had been working on a shelter the previous week.)
‘Great . . . its a bit cold in here.’
‘Yes, it’s wet and drafty.’ (This was a cold, windy, wet West Midlands day! But I did think to myself – good language.)
‘Mmm’,15 seconds silence. (This is important: teachers on average give maximum 5 seconds thinking time (Kontos, 1999))
‘I need a door’.
'Have you any door shapes in mind?’
At least a minute’s silence, wandering around and thinking had gone on.
Laura asked, ‘Do you remember the shapes we were looking at last week in the
'Ahh – a rectangle. That’s the one with two long and two short.'
The child then went off to find two long sticks and two short. He then mused a long time and came over to me again.
‘Not sure how to join these.’
‘Would you like me to help?’
‘Do you have any ideas on how to join them.’
‘Mmmm’, (more silence) ‘string!’
And lo and behold without any prompting from either me or Laura he asked her for string, which she asked her assistant to get from the classroom. The child ended up making a door he was very proud of (still drafty, mind!).
While this may seem a small incident, for Laura, who is clearly a skilled early years practitioner, it was symptomatic of a huge shift from being ‘on top’ to ‘on tap’. She admitted she had to fight all her instincts to intervene and show him what he might do. The resulting learning from her point of view, and the child’s, was far more powerful. What he had done was take ownership of the learning, invested his own thoughts into the door and applied learning inside the classroom to a real life situation outside the classroom.'