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Saturday, 19 October 2013

An Introduction to Forest Schools

Discussion and Review of Current Forest School Philosophy and Aims in light of its recent Historical Development. 

The roots of what we in England now know as Forest Schools can be traced back to Scandinavia, ‘Friluftsliv’ literally ‘fresh air life’ was originally a Norwegian expression and is a concept deeply ingrained in their culture (Knight 2009). ‘Friluftsliv’ is also an integral part of the Swedish national curriculum; this approach is extended to all age groups in Scandinavia including the pre-school age group with ‘skogsmulle’ in Sweden and ‘Naturbørnehaven’ in Denmark.
The Swedish approach to Forest School style programs for pre-school children began in 1957 with Gösta Frohm (Joyce 2004)who at the time was head of the Swedish Society for Outdoor Life (Friluftsfrämjandet). He believed that from a very early age children should have opportunities to learn about sustainability and the environment (Joyce 2004).

Bringing Forest School to the UK

The children set their own agenda, cook [on open fires], listen to storytelling, sing songs, and explore at their own level. They are able to climb very high into the trees on rope ladders and swings, and sit and whittle sticks with knives, alone " (Trout 2004).

This was an observation made during the trip to Denmark in 1994 by the early years department of Bridgewater College which began the formal development of Forest Schools in this country.  Within the UK forest schools expanded slowly, with the nursery at Bridgewater running forest school sessions, and later with Edexcel as their examinations board developing a suite of courses to transmit the forest school ethos (Knight 2009) and train new practitioners. However it was not until 2002 that a large organisation endorsed Forest Schools, it was then that The Forestry Commission stated “access to green space is not just about ‘the environment’. For young children there is perceived to be great benefit in teaching most subjects in a natural environment” (O’Brien, Tabbush, 2002).   Since then Forest Schools had continued to find favour in this country and throughout the world, Skogsmulle schools are found in Japan, Latvia, Russia, Germany, Norway, and Finland (Joyce 2004) and within the UK there are now dozens of providers of Forest Schools programs and training for practitioners.
Although there are now many well established providers of Forest Schools throughout the country the aims and ethos of Forest Schools is not always compatible with modern attitudes towards the outdoors and education.  Many parents and other well-meaning individuals have developed an attitude of ‘risk avoidance’   rather than one of trying to help children self-manage and approach activities that may be viewed as ‘risky’ themselves and learn to deal with those situations. Instead we as a society are now incapable of dealing with risks and have implemented unnecessary safety measures to avoid them, often at the expense of freedom and enjoyment (Gill 2007). Some of the activities involved in Forest Schools can be perceived as risky even something as harmless as ‘playing in the woods’ is not something that every child can do anymore. Forest Schools are a good way of redressing this balance and hopefully parents will feel more comfortable about their children taking part in activities in the woods and countryside as part of a Forest School course where there is less perceived risk if not on their own. This will be discussed more in the following essay on the Forest School leader’s role.
With regard to the curriculum and summative assessment led nature of modern education Forest Schools with its very open learner centred approach does not quite fit in, or at least has a niche all of it’s own. The fact that a learner will not finish a Forest School course with a recognised qualification and that there is no funding to be had for an institution for learners who take part in Forest Schools courses  makes Forest Schools an investment on the part of many institutions which they will see no financial gain from. This may be an issue for many institutions and although there are organisations which support Forest Schools such as the Forestry Commission, Woodland Trusts and some local authority’s this lack of funding may be a hindrance for many who would otherwise be involved in Forest Schools.

Philosophy and Aims
The best way to illustrate the philosophy and aims of forest schools is with this diagram:

Figure 1; Friluftremjanded 2006

This diagram focuses on the environmental education aspect of Forest Schools but other areas (and indeed in this country at least the environmental education aspect of Forest Schools would probably be considered secondary to the social development of participants)  of development among Forest Schools Participants may include;
·         Creative development
·         Physical development
·         Maths development
·         Communication, language and listening
·         Personal, social and emotional development
·         Knowledge and understanding of world.
·         (Forest Research 2005)

A Forest Research report on Forest Schools in England included the following which I think summarises very effectively the key features of a Forest School.
·         The use of a woodland (and therefore ‘wild’) setting that is framed by
strict safety routines and established boundaries that allows the flexibility and
freedom for child-initiated (not only issue-led) learning and other innovative
approaches to learning to take place in a low-risk environment. This woodland
setting is important particularly for children from areas of the country where
there is little opportunity for contact with the natural environment.
·         Learning can be linked to the national curriculum and foundation stage
objectives whilst setting those objectives in a different context, and it is not
focused just on the natural environment. By incorporating innovative
approaches to learning (such as undertaking small and easily achievable
tasks) children are encouraged to develop their innate curiosity and
motivation to learn. This is particularly important for those who find it difficult
to assimilate knowledge in a strictly ‘classroom’ environment.
·         The freedom to explore using multiple senses is fundamental for
encouraging creative, diverse and imaginative play. The focus is on the
‘whole child’ (not just their academic ability) and how they can develop their
own learning styles at their own pace whilst maximising the benefits from
each experience they discover for themselves.
·         Regular contact for the children over a significant period of time (e.g. all
year round, in all weathers). Regular can mean anything from fortnightly
during a school term to one morning, afternoon or day every week for twelve
months or more. This is coupled with a clear set of safety routines and
boundaries that allow children to develop a responsible attitude to risk whilst
becoming familiar and confident enough to explore and interact with an everchanging natural environment.
·         A high adult to pupil ratio (e.g. Groups are small with approximately twelve
children per session) allows for children to undertake tasks and play activities
that challenge them but do not put them at undue risk of harm. It also allows
practitioners quickly to get to know the individual learning styles, abilities and
characteristics of the children in their charge.


For a full reference list see my full essay at; 

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