Learning in a Forest School context is inquiry based, emergent, and based on real hands-on experiences. In other words learning comes naturally. Our program works with children’s natural desire to explore and question the world around them. Inquiry based learning, as the name suggests, involves exploring a child’s questions, interests, and ideas about the natural world. Forest School uses this curiosity as a foundation upon which to build the child’s problem solving abilities, critical thinking, and deep connection to nature. Learning in this format is emergent, meaning that it cannot be pre-planned by the educator. Instead, our “lessons” emerge as children follow their interests. It is a learning style that allows children to learn at their own pace, thus accommodating for different learning abilities and needs.
The importance of play in the child’s development is at the very heart of the Forest School ethos. Playfulness and curiosity go hand in hand, after all! Nature play gives children the precious opportunity to build communication and social skills, work on problem solving and allow burgeoning creativity to thrive. Learning through play is learning for the children by the children and is therefor an infinitely powerful learning experience.
Self-esteem and emotional intelligence are both keys to the development of a happy and resilient child. Any early childhood program should focus on enhancing the child’s self-esteem and developing their emotional intelligence and research has shown that Forest School programs and the expert mentoring of Forest School leaders do just that.
Increased self-esteem is one of the key results often observed in children participating in Forest School. A study by Liz O’Brien and Richard Murray identified the main elements of Forest School that had a direct link to increasing self-esteem in participants. First of all, the low ratio of child to adult provided more one on one time for the child and with the additional support children were more likely to achieve their goals. (O’Brien and Murray, 2006) This was particularly relevant in learning to use new tools, which also encourages trust and responsibility. With this help, children can learn new skill and, importantly, recognize that they have learnt new skills and seeing what they can achieve links directly to increasing their self-esteem and confidence. (O’Brien and Murray, 2006) Many activities in Forest School involve creating things, whether it be shelters, tools masks etc. and this production of physical evidence of a child’s work also contributes to self-esteem. The child-led nature of Forest School in terms of play, games, activities or songs allows the children to take part in a group activity and provide a recognizable contribution. Finally, being in an alternate environment and experiencing different things can change the focus for children with undesirable home life. All these contribute to creating happier children who are more independent. (O’Brien and Murray, 2006) The role of the Forest School leader is to be there for the children when they may need some guidance or to learn a new skill in order to accomplish a goal for themselves. A good leader knows when to offer a knot or a tool but also knows when to back off and leave the child be. This releasing of responsibility to the child and the respecting of the child’s abilities increases self-esteem and confidence.
Forest School also fosters the development of emotional intelligence in participants. An emotionally intelligent child will “have the dispositions and attitudes to learn, such as motivation, concentration, perseverance, the ability to control one’s own emotions and judge emotions in others.” (Falch-Lovesey et al., 2005) In Forest Schools it has been observed that students demonstrate high levels of motivation and perseverance. The child-led and child-centered approach means that students are intrinsically motivated and highly concentrated on their activities and persevere because it is exactly what they want to be doing and focusing their attention on. (Falch-Lovesey et al., 2005) This is evident in tree climbing, shelter building and various fine-motor based craft projects. Collaboration and problem solving in Forest School, in the form of games, building things etc., provides many opportunities for children to engage with one another and recognize and respond to the emotions of their peers. Also the lengthy programs, small groups and woodland resources give substantial time, space and opportunity for the adults to work with children on specific emotional goals and encourage the children to use the woodland resources to help develop emotional management strategies. (Forest School Wales, 2015) The Forest School leader is always focused on carefully observing the students. By this close observation, the leader is able to recognize when strong emotions are rising up in a child and be there to help them understand their emotions and provide strategies that may help the child manage their behaviours.
Increased self-esteem and development of emotional intelligence are both key results of a well run Forest School. They are two of the many benefits of Forest School on the overall well being of participants and two vital indicators of a happy and healthy childhood.
Falch-Lovesey, Sue. Lord, Clare. Ambrose, Louise. (2005) Forest School in Norfolk – Pilot Study Report and Evaluation. Norfolk County Council. Retrieved from http://www.schools.norfolk.gov.uk/view/NCC104249
Forest School Wales (2015). Emotional Intelligence. Retrieved from http://www.forestschoolwales.org.uk/ysgol-goedwigforest-school/what-happens-in-a-session/emotional-intelligence/
O’Brien, Liz and Murray Richard. (2006). A marvelous Opportunity for Children to Learn: A participatory evaluation of Forest School in England and Wales. Forest Research. Retrieved from http://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/fr0112forestschoolsreport.pdf/$FILE/fr0112forestschoolsreport.pdf
The history of Forest School in Europe finds it’s deepest roots centuries ago and countless separate and connected ways of thought and movements have brought it to where it is today.
As early as the 1800s the romantics, such as Wordsworth and Ruskin, responded to the recent industrial revolution with counter-culture ideals of the importance of the sublime in nature, creative freedom, imagination and childhood innocence. (Cree & McCree, 2012) Their ideals, as well as those of contemporary or later educators, naturalists and philosophers the likes of Thoreau, John Muir, Baden Powell, Leslie Paul, Kurt Hahn, Susan Isaacs and the McMillan sisters were the inspirations for what we know now as Forest School. (FSA, 2012)
In the 1950s Forest Schools began popping up in Sweden, Denmark and other European countries. (Forest School Canada, 2015) Open-air culture (‘frulitsliv’) is deeply embedded in Scandinavian way of life and Danish pre-schools support the value of outdoor, child-centered, play-based pedagogy. In 1993 a group of nursery nurses at Bridgwater College in Somerset visited Denmark and were inspired to start their own Forest School in the UK. (FSA, 2012) From there the College developed a BTech in Forest School and Forest School took off in the UK. In 2002 practitioners held the first national conference at which an official definition was created and in 2012 the definition, principles and criteria were reviewed and built upon leading to the founding of the Forest School Association. (FSA, 2012) Canada’s first Forest School, Carp Ridge Forest School, opened its door in 2008 just outside Ottawa, Ontario. (Forest School Canada, 2015) Since then other Forest and Nature Schools have sprouted elsewhere in Canada including some in the Victoria, BC Region. Saanich parks and recreation has begun to offer a program called E.C.O. (Educating Children Outside) featuring Forest School for preschool children at Swan Lake Nature Sanctuary and Beaver Lake Regional Park. (Saanich Parks and Rec, 2015) Victoria Nature School, based out of Mount Douglas park, began in 2013 and offers programs for two year olds and three to five year olds. (Victoria Nature School, 2015) We at West Coast Forest School have been offering out of school camp programs in Victoria and the surrounding area since 2017.
Forest Schools are now widespread throughout Scandinavia, England, Wales, Scotland and the rest of Europe and the movement is gaining traction in Canada. With the introduction of the Forest School practitioner’s Level 3 course to Canada there is no doubt that Forest Schools will become ever more prevalent and popular in North America as well.
Cree, Jon & McCree, Mel. (2012). A Brief History of the Roots of Forest School in the UK. Horizons, 60, pages 32-34.
Forest School Canada. (2015). History of Forest and Nature School. Retrieved from http://www.forestschoolcanada.ca/home/about-forest-school/history-of-forest-school
FSA. (2012). History of Forest School. Retrieved from http://www.forestschoolassociation.org/history-of-forest-school/
Saanich Parks and Recreation. (2015). E.C.O. Program. Retrieved from http://www.saanich.ca/parkrec/recreation/e-c-o-program.html?ref=shortURL
Victoria Nature School. (2015). Home page. Retrieved from http://www.victorianatureschool.com/
(United Nations Human Rights, 1989)
The United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child as Adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly resolution on the 20th of November 1989 and entered into force the 2nd of September 1990 was a momentous step towards global recognition of the importance of basic human rights during childhood. Play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child, as noted in Article 31 (United Nations Human Rights, 1989), is a right that is central to the Forest School ethos. Though undervalued in traditional school styles, Forest Schools value play, and particularly child-led play, as a way for children to meet their basic needs not only for fun but also for learning.
Article 31 recognized play as a basic human right, as fundamental to what children need to develop, and nothing could be truer. From an evolutionary perspective all mammals need play. The young play at the activities and the culture of the old in order to gain understanding of how and why people behave the way they do. (Gray, 2013) In traditional hunter-gatherer societies the children are not explicitly taught anything, unless they request to be. They observe the behaviours of adults in their culture, listen to their conversations and watch them at their activities, then spend the majority of their day playing with their observations. They play at hunting, tracking, cooking, decision-making, problem solving and many other useful skills that the children adopt and bring into the realm of play. (Gray, 2013) This remains a biological necessity for children in our culture as well.
Forest Schools believe in this power of play and that play is “fundamental to healthy development and learning.” (Forest School Canada: Parent’s Handbook, 2014) Play in a Forest School can be defined as “a process that is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. That is, children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas, and interests in their own way for their own reasons.” (Hughes, 2013) This quote ties in directly with the idea of culture as stated in Article 31. Giving children the right to self-directed play allows them the opportunity to evaluate, play with and manipulate any aspects of our culture they choose to. In order to “participate freely in cultural life and the arts” (United Nations Human Rights, 1989) children need to be free to pursue their own interests and their own ways of following those interests. Those ways typically involve various types of play observed and supported in Forest School such as symbolic play, exploratory play, socio-dramatic play, dramatic play, social play, communication play, creative play, deep play, fantasy play, imaginative play, locomotor play, mastery play, recapitulative play and rough and tumble play. (Forest School Canada, 2014)
Article 31 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child directly supports Forest School’s belief in the value of all types of play to the healthy development of a child. Forest School puts into action the idea that play is not idle, wasted time but a biological necessity for all children and a fundamental human right.
Forest School Canada. (2014). Forest School Canada: Parent Handbook. Pg. 17.
Forest School Canada. (2014). FOREST AND NATURE SCHOOL IN CANADA: A Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning. Pg. 25-30.
Gray, Peter. (2013). Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. Basic Books: New York.
Hughes, Bob. (2013) “Evolutionary Playwork.” Routledge.
United Nations Human Rights: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. (1989). Conventions on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
Every good parent knows that there is nothing more important in the world than the health and safety of their child. So “is Forest School safe?” is a very important question. The answer, in a word, is no. Anytime you take a child out of the sanitized and ‘safe’ confines of a classroom or indoor learning environment there will be an increased level of risk. Uneven ground, sharp sticks, broken branches hanging above and a slew of other possibly dangerous hazards decorate the outdoor learning environment and when you feature in outside play and the inherent human errors it makes learning outside seem like an extraordinarily risky endeavor. Rather than shy away or overprotect children, the Forest School philosophy embraces risk and not only establishes standards by which to manage risk in certain situations but also encourages healthy risk taking and understanding of hazards and risks as a vital component of the learning experience.
Through play in nature at Forest School, the children’s decision-making and risk-assessment skills are honed. Children learn from the mistakes that they make and by assessing a situation’s benefits and negatives. The philosophy of Forest School focuses on real experiences, be it through play, tool use, shelter building or a variety of other activities, and that involves meeting and dealing with a variety of challenges. Using the example of climbing a tree, children learn much more from the experience of climbing, meeting and pushing their comfort level, even when it results in a fall, than they do by being told not to climb trees because it is dangerous. Taking risks, and learning how to identify and deal with risk, is a part of children’s natural development and without question a vitally important life skill. Engaging in risk-taking activities support the holistic development of the child. Risk-taking engages the child cognitively in terms of decision making and problem solving as well as physically (the activities themselves) and the tangible results that derive from taking risks and improving support self-confidence and emotional resiliency thus engaging the emotional and spiritual domains of development.
It is the role of the Forest School leader to ensure that children are not exposed to an unacceptable level of risk. Formats of risk assessment may vary from program to program but may follow this general sequence: identify the hazard, decide who may be harmed and how, evaluate the risk (Likelihood x Consequence = Risk) and decide on any precautions, record your findings and implement any control actions and review the assessment and update as necessary. There are also numerous different types of risk-assessments that may be necessary. These include; seasonal site risk assessments, activity or experience risk assessment, individuals risk assessment, daily risk assessment or dynamic risk assessment. The job of assessing risk is shared with the students of Forest School and with practice identifying hazards and risks they become direct contributors to the process. When assessing the risk of an activity a Forest School leader employ a risk-benefit assessment model. Balance between risk and benefit is complicated and often requires subjective judgment. A leader must take many things into account and may use everyday expertise, skills and knowledge or require specialist expertise to accurately assess risks.
In our Forest School experience we have observed various different types of risk taking. One striking example comes from a five-year-old boy who just recently became verbal. He found his role in a fantasy play game a couple of the girls were playing about building fairy houses by climbing up to the highest branches of a maple tree to harvest the biggest, greenest leaves for them to use as the roof. This positive risk taking for him not only relates to the physical aspect of pushing himself to the highest branches he could but also to the social risk taking for him pushing his comfort zone by playing in a situation he rarely has had opportunity to outside of Forest School. Tool use at our Forest School was also a key risk taking activity. Whether it be an older child’s desire to make a wood mallet, a multi-session project involving learning to work with the bow saw and the knife, a five year old asking on the last session to try and learn how to sharpen a stick with a knife or a group of kids using a chisel and mallet to harvest pieces of quartz from a mine area while also managing their own risk of fires by spraying water on the sparks, learning how to safely use tools and how to mitigate the risk to their own health and safety are valuable lessons that result in increased confidence and self esteem. The participants of our Forest School are also directly involved at the start of each day in identifying new hazards to our areas (branches blown by wind, glass, holes to trip in etc.) and discussing how we can manage the risk these hazards entaile to provide ourselves the most safe but also fun landscape with which to work. This inclusive practice gives the participants not only the skills to identify risks to their safety but also the ownership over the act of managing their own safety.
Risk plays a vital role to the child’s learning experience in Forest School. Children are encouraged to engage in healthy risk-taking behaviour in order to take advantage of the body and mind benefits inherent in such activities. They are also directly involved in identifying hazards and recognizing risks on a daily basis. The complicated role of the leader is to support them along their risk-literacy journey but also ensure that children are not put in unacceptably risky situations by comprehensively assessing the risk of all potentially hazardous sites and activities. No, Forest School is not safe but it isn’t meant to be! So is it worth the risk? Absolutely. Cuts and bruises heal but the positive effects of strong self-esteem and resilience built in childhood last a lifetime.