The following is a guest post written by Adam Smart who is a dad of two children aged 1 and 5 and forest school leader. He also runs three after school clubs and works as a teaching assistant. I really wanted someone to write about the benefits of forest school and Adam very kindly volunteered. Many Thanks to him for the following wonderful piece.
The benefits of Forest School by Adam Smart
Forest school is transformational! When I trained to become a forest school leader it totally changed the way I viewed the world and particularly education. When I’ve seen it introduced to schools and after school clubs it creates a new way of thinking for all involved. Most importantly, it provides a totally unique learning experience for children.
It was brought over to the UK in the mid-nineties; however, it is only in the last 10 years that it has become well known. It has become a recognised opportunity within schools, preschools, afterschool clubs and holiday clubs. Year on year it becomes more popular and now there are several preschools that exist only as forest schools.
I now run after school and holiday clubs across three settings and provide an approach that uses the best of forest school and play work. If you’d like to read more about our unique approach please visit us here.
Whether you are a seasoned forest schooler or an interested parent who wants to know what all the fuss is about, let’s dig deep and find out why it’s so great.
What is forest school?
The forest school concept originates in Denmark and was originally aimed at pre-school children. They found that those who attended sessions arrived at school with strong social skills, communication skills, the ability to work effectively in groups, high self-esteem and a confidence in their own abilities.
Forest school is a professionally led, long term programme that allows children to take leadership in their own learning, within a fun, physical, woodland environment.
It allows the children to experience a new way of learning through small and achievable experiences. Appropriate risk-taking results in the children showing improvements in self-esteem, responsibility, confidence and independence.
What are the benefits of Forest school?
Being outdoors improves physical and mental development and even as adults we know that after a walk to the shop, a jog or a bit of gardening we can focus better when we come back indoors. Even this blog became easier to write after a walk around the local nature reserve this morning with my son.
Being outdoors also reduces stress, improves mental health and lowers blood pressure.
It develops respect for our environment
The last few years has seen some positive moves towards taking care of our planet. Its future care is in the hands of the children, however, if they continue to spend more time in front of screens and indoors they won’t see the reasons to look after it.
Allowing children to climb in trees, make dens and look for bugs increases their understanding of our natural world and environment. This builds respect and encourages them to help it flourish.
Opportunities for child led learning
This is when children are allowed to decide what they want to learn. It mimics how they learn many fundamental skills such as walk and talking and makes each subject that they choose far more relevant to them.
In forest school we allow time for children to learn for themselves and support children in enhancing that learning by allowing them to lead instead. We offer an environment where children can try these things and follow up their own ideas and exploration.
If you listen and observe children during child led sessions you will hear many amazing conversations that range from maths and literacy to science and technology. Climbing a tree covers several areas of space, shape and measure such as, that branch is too far away, that branch isn’t thick enough, I am high up in the tree etc…
It allows children to assess their own risk-
Children should be kept as safe as necessary instead of as safe as possible.
During Forest school children are encouraged to risk assess for themselves and, 99 times out of 100, the children do a better job of this then the adults.
During any Forest school session, I always try to stand back and let things play out as often as possible. We don’t have limits on how high children can climb and we allow them to try new things. Amazingly we have never had to tell a child not to go any higher in a tree. All humans have fear to keep them safe, including children, and they always stop before they get to high.
Fear in forest school can be seen in a variety of different ways, from turning over a log and seeing a spider, being close to fire, climbing high in a tree or the initial feeling of falling when pushed on a rope swing.
There is never a clearer roller coaster of emotions seen then on a child’s face when they are pulled high up on a rope swing, the swing is let go and they swing through the air. In a split second you can see pure fear through to pure delight.
Combatting these fears in a “controlled” environment allows children to overcome those fears and as a result lowering their anxiety, make them more confident and teaches them fundamental skills in dealing with fear and fight and flight responses as they get older. Remember, fear is a GOOD feeling, it keeps us safe.
It provides opportunities for “unsupervised” Play
With the media’s scaremongering making us feel we can’t let our children out of our sight for any amount of time, the amount of unsupervised play available for children has significantly decreased.
Unsupervised play is fundamental for a child’s development. It helps to decrease anxiety levels, increase confidence and supports them in becoming independent human beings.
It can also teach informal rule making and independent decision making. Although not unsupervised during Forest school, a major part of the adult’s role should be to step back and allow children to play with as little adult intervention as possible.
You will be amazed by the observations you can get from just stepping back and letting the children take full control of their play.
“Play is the business of children themselves”, Jack Lambert 1974
First hand evidence that forest school works- Teaching children to be children.
I ran one of my first forest school sessions with a group of ten year olds and it could only be described as a massive flop. I left it thinking “I have a huge job on my hands here”.
The children came out excited and looking forward to an afternoon of Forest school. We started around the log circle discussing some ground rules, barriers and ideas of what they would like to gain and experience from the session. The usual conversations happened around “I want to toast marshmallows” and “I want to use a saw”.
However, it soon became clear that they weren’t yet able to attempt self-directed tasks. We discussed that it was up to them what they did now. The next 15 minutes was mainly spent with them wandering around the forest, having a little go at some tree climbing until someone said shall we play man hunt. This game was played but with little enthusiasm.
The session ended and the children made their way back into class.
On reflection I realised that children didn’t know how to PLAY. They were so used to being given objectives, targets and focused equipment i.e. hockey sticks, that when told they could do as they wished they couldn’t do it.
For the next four weeks I taught them to become children, starting with structured sessions and slowly removing the structure and allowing them to make their own choices. Amazingly after four weeks the children were coming out and taking control.
By the end of term they were collecting wood and lighting their own fire, starting up their own games and looking after each other if they got hurt. What they saw as useless objects such as tyres, pallets, sticks and tarpaulins, now became dens, forts, resources for games and swords.
A group of 6 individual children became a small community; each one had their role within the group and a respect for each other. If a child was struggling with fire lighting, another child would show them how to do it. I became nothing more than a supplier “Mr Smart can you get the bill hook” or “Mr Smart can we have the flint and steel”.
Forest school provides many benefits both to children and the adults who are lucky enough to provide the opportunities. Children are given the opportunity to explore who they are and their role within groups in a way that can never happen in a classroom.
If you don’t have access to a forest school in your area just getting outside with your children is a great start. Listen to their ideas and follow their lead. It will be time well spent and will have a huge impact on their self-esteem, independence and creativity.
Samantha Donnelly says
I have not heard about forest school before, but agree totally about the different ways to teach our children and enjoying the outdoors.
It’s wonderful Sam. We all love it. I think it should be compulsory in all schools, it’s so good for the children.