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Forest School - the past, the present and the future

Updated: Jun 23, 2021

I haven't written for a while but this is a post I have been thinking about for the last few months. As part of my Forest School training, I have been asked to explore the history of Forest School and it's possible future. It evolved into a bit of an outlet for my frustration at the school system which isn't exactly where I thought it would go before I started writing! But there we go...

Forest School - The Past

In the early 90s, a group of nursery practitioner students from Bridgewater College in England travelled to Denmark to observe and learn from the Danish approach to learning in the early years. It is no secret that the Scandinavians embrace the outdoor lifestyle. After all, it was where the phrase “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing” originated from (I highly recommend this book by the way - There's No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom's Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids). In fact, there is a word in Swedish – “friluftsliv” (please don’t ask me to pronounce this word!) which translates as ‘open-air living’. Infants in Scandinavia are often bundled up and taken outside to have their naps! When my son was 6 months old and I was visiting Scotland from Australia where we lived and where my son was born, I did just that and I believe the fresh air did him the world of good. His naps were longer (hooray!) and he slept much better at night (double hooray!) The Danes also have a unique word, Hygge, pronounced ‘hue-guh’ which is used when describing something as cosy, charming or special. This word is used during the winter months and accompanies cold, dark days or evenings seeking warmth and comfort by a fire or under some blankets playing games or watching movies with friends or family. Aaahhhh I can hear the fire crackling now…

Anyway, I digress! What the nursery practitioners saw was the young Danish nursery children absolutely embracing the great outdoors and the fresh air. The children spent most of their time outside, whatever the weather! These practitioners were so enthused by this, they came back to the UK and set about applying this philosophy in their own nursery. This was essentially the first Forest School in the UK. A couple of years later, the college developed a vocational qualification in Forest School. Over the next 10 years, the Forest School approach grew and spread throughout England and Wales. In 2002 the official definition was developed: “An inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a local woodland environment.” (

The Forest School approach has now grown so much that programs have been created and run for people of all ages and from many walks of life – babies, toddlers, pre-schoolers, primary school children, secondary school children, vulnerable adults, adults with substance mis-use or addiction issues. The list really could go on. In fact, I can’t really think of a group of people that wouldn’t benefit from a Forest School program.

Forest School - The Present

Can you think of a living being who does thrive in confinement? Hang on, isn’t confinement used as a form of punishment in contexts other than school?!

It is common these days for schools to offer Forest School programs to their children. Sometimes for all children or sometimes for children with additional needs or ‘learning difficulties’. Often the children are taken outside to a local woodland or an on-site suitable location where they spend a couple of hours, once or twice a week. I must admit, it is in this area that I feel the most passionate about Forest School and yet also the most frustrated. Frustrated, because I think it is due to the school system that we even need time out for Forest School in the first place. In a way, if the traditional school system wasn’t the way it was i.e. over-stretched, outdated, fixated on standardized tests, confining children to classrooms and forcing them to conform, then perhaps we wouldn’t ‘need’ Forest School programs to ‘fix’ the ‘issues’ the system has caused in the first place. What’s worse, is that we have now applied categories to, and names for these children. As a society, we are perfectly comfortable talking about children with ‘learning difficulties’. But what if we shift our attention away from the ‘problem’ and instead look at what might be the cause? Take ADHD for example. Is there really anything wrong with a child whose body needs to move in order to feel comfortable or to learn or who needs additional stimulation to meet their learning needs? I don’t think so. Could it not be that for many children, sitting down for long periods of time just isn’t the correct thing for them to be doing? Often, children who have been labelled as having ADHD feel that their ‘condition’ disappears when they go to Forest School. Erm, hello! Is it not perhaps since the classroom environment relies on confinement and control that many children don’t thrive? Can you think of a living being who does thrive in confinement? Hang on, isn’t confinement used as a form of punishment in contexts other than school?!

Forest School - The Future

The message I am trying to convey is that until the school system is reformed to meet the needs of children in the 21st century, Forest School plays an extremely important role in providing an environment where children can develop confidence and self-esteem and gain a sense of achievement that they may not get in school. I like to think of it as giving children a window of opportunity in their life where they can feel achievement, feel accomplishment, and gradually over time, feel confident in trying something new without the fear of being told they are wrong. I would like to see Forest School and traditional school being a lot more integrated; less separation between the two. In fact, I hope to see schools accommodate children so that their needs were actually met. They could do this by adopting the Forest School ethos. It’s time we stop confining and controlling children for most of their childhood. In an ideal world, the Forest School environment which provides children with multiple and varied ways to achieve would not be a 2-hour window in their week, it would be the norm for them. Time outside in nature would outweigh time spent inside in a classroom being made to sit still.

It’s time we give children back their childhood.

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