Why children should be taught in the great outdoors

Building a fire

Building a fire - Credit: Archant

Reading, writing… and fire-lighting? More and more children across the UK are being taken out of the classroom to be taught in the great outdoors, writes Amy Noton

Scavenging, shelter-building and learning how to light a fire might not sound like your average day at school, but for an increasing number of Forest School programmes in the UK, exploring the natural world in all seasons and all weathers is part of the unique learning experience.

Forest School is a Scandinavian concept that aims to make teaching more interesting by offering children regular opportunities to learn through practical activities in an outdoor – ideally woodland – environment. It can be personally and socially uplifting, supporters believe, helping children to develop creativity and self-esteem alongside skills such as problem-solving and risk-taking.

The name does not refer to an actual place, rather a philosophy. A school cannot become ‘a Forest School’, however it can provide Forest School programmes for its pupils. The first UK Forest School programme was set up by a team from Bridgwater and Taunton College in Somerset in 1993 and the movement has grown considerably over the last two decades.

Sarah Blackwell is Founder and CEO of Archimedes Earth Ltd Forest Schools, which has trained around 14,000 Forest School practitioners globally. “Unlike other forms of outdoor education, Forest School embraces an approach of nurturing, supporting and developing the self-esteem of participants,” says Sarah. “Traditional teaching methods tend to be teacher-led, but Forest School is all about focusing on the child as an individual.”

Running throughout the year and in all weathers, Forest School programmes can include activities such as building dens, identifying mini-beasts and plants, using tools and cooking on a fire, but Sarah is keen to point out the focus is predominantly on the emotional benefits sessions can provide.

“There can be a misconception that Forest School is just about going into the woods and having a good time,” says Sarah. “But it is actually about giving the child strength of identity. By participating in engaging and achievable tasks in a woodland environment, they develop their emotional and social skills whilst learning how to handle risks and use their own initiative.”

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No two Forest School providers are the same. Some are privately-run, while others are supported by Local Education Authorities or come about within the Forest Education Initiative, but broadly their key features are the use of a natural setting, a range of learner-centred processes, and regular contact for the children with Forest School over a significant period of time.

Most importantly, Forest School programmes are led by qualified practitioners. “It’s difficult to count, but I would estimate there are around 4,000-6,000 Forest School practitioners in the UK,” says Gareth Davies, CEO of the Forest School Association (FSA), the professional body and UK-wide voice for all things Forest School. “As we’re seeing an increase in the popularity of Forest School, we have developed the first set of nationally-recognised professional standards for those delivering training and a new Quality Assurance Scheme. Our aim is to work together to increase opportunities for people to experience quality Forest School in the UK because the benefits are so wide-ranging.”

The concept continues to branch out, supporting learners of all ages in cultivating a lifelong appreciation of the natural environment. In an increasingly results-driven education system, is it time we all looked to the woods?