Jan 24, 2023

What is The Forest School approach and what are the benefits?

Female practitioner introducing a young girl to a chicken that resides in their outdoor Forest School area

This blog, written by one of our qualified Forest School Leaders, delves into the importance of Forest School and why we encourage children to take part in it across some of our settings.

Myself and my team in Devizes look to the environment as another teacher in providing learning and experiences for the children. The approach looks to encompass both learning and development in an approach to suit the individual through interacting with nature and taking risks to understand ones capabilities and learn to problem solve. The facilities we have enable the children to explore, learn, experience, feel, touch and see nature in its untouched form. The benefits to Forest School are  are hugely diverse. It takes away the constant busy lifestyle and removes external factors to focus on first hand experiences in nature. The approach to Forest School can for some children who struggle with the more formal layout of learning, help encourage an alternative direction to achieving and learning, this all being done amongst nature.

What is the Forest School Approach?

Seen by some as an ‘alternative’ education model the Forest School approach dates back to the 1990s, becoming apparent in the national curriculum during the 1970s. Taking inspiration from the Scandinavian practices in early education it was child-centred and based on outdoor play. The first applications in the UK sought after a holistic learning strategy in children that used their natural inquisitiveness to support development in a natural environment.

Being outside has huge benefits. The fresh air and movement all contribute to a more healthy lifestyle. This being important in a time where screens can dictate peoples lives. During the pandemic it was apparent the lack of outdoor exposure some children have on a daily basis. For those children who live with no accessible outdoor space, parents (when restrictions allowed) took their children to local parks. This experience of getting outside in terms of behaviour for children can change almost instantly. Working as a nanny before working at Sixpenny I know first hand how getting outside before supper can change the outcomes of the experience for all involved. The approach role models to the children the importance of movement and interacting with what is around us. An example could be seen following a frost. The frost highlighting the webs which ordinarily would have been invisible to the naked eye are then brought to the foreground for the children to see the patterns, and to understand they we share our environment with living creatures, leading to endless learning opportunities!

Interacting with nature can enhance our learning experiences. Through our senses our experiences are heightened, and for children under the age of 5 years old those experiences are paramount in laying the foundations for building on as they grow up. The activity of using what is to hand at the time enables creativity and problem solving. The approach of Forest School encourages a freedom for children to explore using their imagination. A child could have read a story about magic, this being enhanced through foraging and finding the perfect wand in the form of a stick. The child then decorates their wand using leaves and twine, all positively contributing to their own learning. The avenues this leads other children down, encourages conversations and experiences to be shared amongst the group. This also allows the leaders the opportunity to observe and interact as required such as linking the twine to knots for the group to learn as a whole.

Nature itself is seen as a teacher. For us at Forest School we use the seasons as a template for planning our sessions. This making use of the changing seasons and what comes with those which we witness first hand. An awareness of the mammals we share the land with, such as rabbits, moles, deers, kites and other native birds. All lead to activities we carry out. Examples would be, providing daily water for hedgehogs or creating fat balls to hang around the stables to bring the birds into focus for the children to see. Being conscious of the environment and those we share it with is important for children and encourages making mindful choices which have affects on the environment. A global concern in terms of climate change and its affects the children will see first hand through hotter and longer summers. We also see the direct affects on the animals who share our environment, such as hedgehogs who may wake early from hibernation.

A fundamental approach within the Forest School approach is risk taking. For children they have an innate desire to try new things, and as part of our daily routine we explore the meadow and woodland. Both housing many species which not only encourage a range of wildlife but, over time the natural lifecycle of plants and trees. Fallen limbs from the trees provide mini ecosystems for fungi and mini beasts, but also climbing frames. The free flow style in the woodland is hugely helpful in allowing the children to understand and experience their own capabilities. We look to provide an environment a children to feel comfortable to take risks. In some cases the outcome results in a fall, this process contributes to learning how to tackle the risk next time. For children this is a huge milestone in understanding how far they can push themselves in order to succeed, or to risk assess how to approach the climbing differently next time. All of this being done through close observations from the adults who can encourage or suggest in the moment.

How to support this approach at home

If you have a love for being outdoors, include your child/ren in the experience. You are their biggest role model, and through inviting them in it will allow them a chance to share their enjoyment of something with you. Through a simple walk collecting leaves or twigs to build a bug hotel, or using what you have foraged to create a family portrait, painting, stamping, cleaning and painting story stones all of it enables quality time interacting with nature. Even if food is a love in your household, take up gardening. The process of building and tending to a vegetable patch together is hugely beneficial in allowing some one-to-one time. It will encourage time spend outdoors, getting your hands dirty, and growing food to then prepare and share for supper. This is an entire cycle which for a child to see where food comes from and the time and effort put into it, is all beneficial to their understanding.

The benefits to Forest School are why I chose to qualify as a Forest School Leader. Working and supporting young minds is not only rewarding but can have an impact on the way they see the world. Through passing on knowledge and providing space for experiences to be had, the children are able to make their own judgments on what they witness when attending Forest School. Through directly interacting with the natural environment a greater awareness is gained and the future effects are highlighted. This gives hope to the possibility of working with nature to optimise what it can offer without going against it.

Related pages/links:

The Brighter Learning Approach 

Our Curriculum

Outdoor Play & Learning

Related blogs:

The Importance of Teaching Children About Our Wonderful World

The Importance of Outdoor Play and Learning

Written by Evangeline, Forest School Leader at Sixpenny Nursery & Pre-School

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