Forest School: what is it and how does it benefit children?

Pupils taking part in Forest School activities at Derby Grammar

Forest School at Derby Grammar allows pupils to learn holistically through exploring the natural world - Credit: Ian Hodgkinson / Picture It

The uptake of Forest School activities has been gaining momentum in recent years – but what exactly are the advantages of this imaginative learning style?

Originating in Scandinavia, outdoor learning sessions are being adopted by schools across the UK, with research suggesting it can have a significant positive impact on a child's development and wellbeing. 

“The idea behind Forest School is that it provides a different approach to education, where pupils learn holistically through exploring the natural world,” explains Becky Hill, Forest School leader at Derby Grammar.

“It’s not just about acquiring knowledge – the children are also developing emotionally and socially while forming a deeper understanding of the world around them.”

What is the Forest School approach?

Forest School is a child-centred learning process that allows pupils to grow and develop through regular sessions in a natural setting. Children are encouraged to take risks, use their imagination and explore through hands-on experiences, supported by a trained Forest School practitioner.

“I always follow the lead of the child and allow them to pursue their own interests, which is very different to a classroom environment which is more structured and time-constrained,” says Becky. “It encourages independent learning through exploration and discovery, without them being aware of it.”

Becky Hill and a pupil building a camp fire as part of Forest School activities at Derby Grammar

Becky Hill, Forest School leader at Derby Grammar, allows children to pursue their own interests during outdoor learning sessions - Credit: Ian Hodgkinson / Picture It

Forest School activities 

Sessions take place outdoors, usually in woodland, and involve a variety of activities, from building campfires to planting trees and learning about wildlife. “There are no set lesson plans in Forest School – it’s amazing to see where the children’s imagination takes them,” says Becky. 

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Pupils are encouraged to step outside their comfort zone and take part in activities that have an element of risk, such as using tools to whittle or climbing trees. “We’re often taught these activities are dangerous from a young age, but by assessing the risks and overcoming their fears in a supportive environment, children are developing skills they can use in other areas of school life,” explains Becky. 

Forest School practitioner Becky Hill and pupils taking part in an outdoor learning session in the woods at Derby Grammar

During Forest School sessions, children are encouraged to take risks, use their imagination and explore through hands-on experiences - Credit: Ian Hodgkinson / Picture It

As well as allowing pupils to play and have fun, Becky often uses the sessions to teach about important topics such as biodiversity and climate change. “Learning how to protect the environment through conservation and use books to identify different species isn’t necessarily taught as part of the curriculum, but it’s just as important as traditional subjects,” she says.

What do children learn at Forest School?

It's no secret that young people today spend less time outdoors – and while the increased use of technology has many educational benefits, the practical and transferable skills learnt from the natural world can often be overlooked. 

“Forest School aims to bring back some of the wonder and curiosity that has been lost in the classroom while helping to build self-confidence, resilience and problem-solving abilities,” says Becky. 

Becky Hill and a pupil exploring the woods at Derby Grammar during a Forest School session

Being in a natural setting has proven to have numerous benefits for children's physical and mental wellbeing - Credit: Ian Hodgkinson / Picture It

Improving social skills is another by-product of learning in a more informal setting, Becky tells us. “It’s a non-judgemental space that allows for natural conversations, where the children have the freedom to speak and get their point across, which can be particularly beneficial for those who typically don’t flourish in the classroom.” 

Derby Grammar’s Forest School programme 

Since 2019, Derby Grammar has been offering outdoor activities for primary school pupils, as well as co-curricular sessions for senior years. The school is currently working towards a Forest School accreditation, and by September they hope to be offering two hours of outdoor activities every week for infants as part of the curriculum, and sessions once a term for older pupils. 

“The Forest School accreditation is a fantastic accolade to have,” says Becky. “We’re incredibly privileged to have lovely grounds and an ancient woodland here at Derby Grammar, and we want our pupils to make the most of the wonderful nature on our doorstep.”

Derby Grammar is holding an open day on Saturday, June 18. To find out more, visit derbygrammar.org or call 01332 523027.