Our roots in Forest School
Liz Edwards, Muddy Faces founder, has been involved in Forest School since 2000. She became a Forest School practitioner in 2001 and went on to set up one of the first Forest School training companies. In 2007 she launched Muddy Faces to support Forest School leaders and outdoor practitioners to source resources and helpful information.
If there is anything you would like to add, comment on or share in this section about Forest School please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
What is Forest School?
Forest School has become a nationally recognised innovative approach to education. The Forest School movement in the UK is growing and becoming established as a part of many children’s and also adult’s lives.
Forest School embraces the outdoors as an inspirational learning environment and is focused on the child’s learning needs rather than specific outcomes. Children are able to explore and experience the natural world on a regular and sustained basis.
- Forest School provides a unique way of building confidence and self-esteem, learning new life skills and promoting independence through hands-on learning experiences
- Forest School programmes are child-led – areas of interest are generated by the children or young people participating. This is achieved through observation and reviewing, which helps practitioners prepare for their following sessions
- Forest School sessions take place regularly, ideally once a week, throughout the year, in all seasons and all weathers – unless it is dangerous for the session to take place, such as in extreme weather (high winds or lightning)
- Many Forest School projects successfully integrate the school curriculum whilst following the interests of the group or individuals. This is achieved by considering the curriculum in an enabling outdoor context, using learning and teaching strategies which raise confidence and develop communication skills
- Where Forest Schools excel, is in supporting ‘the individual’. The Forest School ethos acknowledges individual learning processes and supports participants at their own pace and responds to their requirements and areas of interest. It encourages individuals to build up to a point where they feel they can push their own limits both physically and emotionally. Forest Schools provide a safe yet challenging and stimulating environment full of sensory diversity
- At Forest School the participants are actively involved with how the programmes develop. This makes experiences relevant to them and has a direct effect on motivation, causing the learning experience to be more emotionally-involved and the learning then routed more deeply .
An extract from Forest School for All by Sara Knight
“Defining characteristics of Forest School:
In the UK, Forest school is a way of working in an outdoor environment, preferably but not exclusively in wooded settings. This is based on the premise that repeated enjoyable outdoor experiences will have a positive effect on people, including on their potential dispositions for learning or for personal change, for reasons that are still being explored by researchers.”
Benefits of Forest School
The benefits of attending Forest School are so far-reaching yet also difficult to measure. Below we list some, but by no means all, of the benefits to various aspects of a person’s life or development.
• increased frequency of physical exercise
• a challenging environment that helps to develop motor skills
• fresh open air allows dispersal of viruses
• learning to prepare and cook healthy food.
• space and resources are naturally available, allowing individuals or groups to investigate and problem solve
• an opportunity to be sociable and also to have time alone
• time to just be, where individuals can relax and explore interests
• personal motivation
• a willingness to try new tasks
• the ability to persist at tasks increases.
• an understanding & appreciation of the natural environment through experience
• knowledge of how systems interlink, and how we affect our surroundings
• spending time in the environment and using it to play and learn effects us at a deep level
• this connection with nature opens us up to care more for the environment as adults.
• many of the skills that develop as a result of spending time at a Forest School are essential life skills that in time will benefit the economy
• children develop determination to complete tasks
• they learn to work together as a team communicating effectively
• the environment stimulates the use of descriptive language, mathematical problem solving, calculating and taking acceptable risks, working towards a personal reward.
• Forest Schools can offer the opportunity to involve parents & the wider community in their development & running
• families are more likely to access woodland spaces & spend time playing in and enjoying the outdoors if they have been involved with the development
• often the whole school shifts its approach to outdoor learning as staff have the opportunity to observe children in a different setting
• this has a knock-on effect as techniques can be applied across other learning.
Forest School Evaluation Project:
A study in Wales
Liz O’Brien & Richard Murray, New Economics Foundation, 2003
Value added benefits
- rich supply of resources and materials for use in other curriculum areas
- opportunities to involve parents and wider community
- chance for staff to observe students in a different setting
- opportunities for staff to learn new skills, and enjoy the benefits of Forest Schools too!
- offers an alternative to our over-reliance on digital and electronic sources for recreation, learning, socialising
- offers an opportunity to become fitter and healthier
- participants learn to recognise and assess risks for themselves.
History of Forest Schools
In the mid 1990s a cohort of Bridgewater College staff and Early Years practitioners from Somerset returned from an inspiring visit to Denmark, and set about creating their own version of the outdoor play they had witnessed.
Forest School in the UK has evolved and is now very different from the Scandinavian approach it was originally based on. Children in the UK, on the whole, have limited time and access to the outdoors whereas Scandinavian children have access all day everyday. There are a couple of exceptions to this, where nature kindergartens have been set up to allow children to spend their whole day outdoors. These are, unfortunately, exceptions rather than the norm in the UK.
A meeting with John Blaney, Forest School programme manager at Bridgwater College in Somerset, the home of the Forest School concept in the UK, which all began on a research trip to Denmark back in 1993. The Telegraph, 3 October 2013.
“The professional body and UK-wide voice for Forest School, promoting best practice, cohesion and ‘quality Forest School for all’.
We aim to provide a nationwide base for Forest School Practitioners and those interested in Forest School.”
• develop & maintain the curriculum content for approved Forest School qualifications
• increase opportunities for people to experience quality Forest School in the UK
• provide a central point for collecting, storing & sharing information about Forest School & good practice in Forest School (including notes on good practice, advice on choosing leaders, and advice on choosing trainers)
• stimulate, store & share practitioner & academic research & learn from it
• work collaboratively with other organisations with similar goals & in related areas.
“We are open to all levels of Forest School professional and all those interested in providing and growing opportunities for people to experience quality Forest School within our UK nations.”
The Forest Education Network seeks to engage more young people in forest and woodland environments by supporting delivery of education in forest and woodland settings, networking and sharing good practice, and facilitating communication between the sectors and practitioners involved.
As a free networking organisation, FEN largely provides an information, signposting and support service for members that are themselves directly involved with providing or promoting forest education opportunities.
FEN is hosted by the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom (CLOtC).
The Forest Education Network covers activities and networks in England. For information about Scotland and Wales see below.
“Forest School Wales is a practitioners network working to ensure that throughout Wales there is sustainable Forest School provision supported by a national network that will nurture the development of projects, offer advice, provide resources, guide best practice and provide continuing professional development.
As a voice for Forest School in Wales we involve members in our regional networking & skillshare gatherings, meetings and online resources while keeping them up to date on current legislation and other events relevant to Forest School. We also help connect members to other organisations involved in Forest School related activities.
We don’t run training or Forest School sessions ourselves.”
Outdoor Learning Wales (OLW) is a national network that aims to increase the understanding, appreciation and sustainable use of Wales’ natural environment.
OLW supports regional network groups working towards:
• developing environmental awareness by understanding, appreciating and using Wales’ natural resources sustainably
• increasing first-hand outdoor learning opportunities in and about the natural environment
• improving physical and emotional well-being through opportunities in the natural environment.
OLW supports individuals and groups who are involved in outdoor learning at a local level. These groups are independent, locally managed and free to join. Members share information and develop resources to deliver projects and events.
OWL Scotland is dedicated to increasing the use of Scotland’s outdoor environments for learning.
Learning outdoors, be in in playgrounds, towns, cities, parks or our stunning natural environments, actively engages young people and connects their broader learning with the world around them.
OWL Scotland is supported by Forestry Commission Scotland and evolved out of the Forest Education Initiative (FEI) which has run successfully for over 20 years.
Nationally OWL Scotland supports outdoor and woodland learning for local OWL groups through provision of :
- networking opportunities
‘Uniting early childhood educators, parents, policy-makers, and other stakeholders in the interest of encouraging children to become attuned with their surrounding natural environment and the American landscape.’
Directory & voice of forest kindergartens across the UK – preschool education where children are encouraged to play, explore and learn in a forest or natural environment. also known as a nature nursery, outdoor nursery, or forest preschool.
Forest School qualifications
There are different levels of Forest School training available, equipping you to carry out different roles.
In order to deliver the Forest School programme at least one Level 3 Forest School Leader is required.
Statement from the Forest School Association, February 2018.
Level 1: introduction to Forest School
Level 1 entitles you to help out at a Forest School setting.
Level 1 is equivalent to D-G grades at GCSE and generally requires a very high percentage of contact time with the learner. The learning outcomes in this unit look at the Forest School approach to learning, the impact of Forest School on the site, and risks and hazards associated with Forest School.
Student entry criteria for Level 1
• Have a current CRB disclosure (or Disclosure Scotland Certificate) after 4 sessions
• Aged 16 and over.
Level 2: Forest School Assistant
Level 2 qualifies you to become a Forest School Assistant, taking a proactive role in helping the Forest School Leader/Practitioner plan and deliver the Forest School programme and support the learners.
Level 2 is equivalent to A*-C grades at GCSE and generally requires at least 60% contact time. It consists of two units both worth 3 credits and requiring 30 notional learning hours.
Student Entry criteria for Level 2
• Have a relevant qualification equivalent to a level 1, or some experience of working with children/young people
• Have a current CRB disclosure (or Disclosure Scotland Certificate)
• Aged 18 and over.
Non-essential but recommended
Have or be in the process of acquiring a current valid First Aid certificate (minimum 2-day ITC or equivalent).
Level 3: Forest School Leader/Practitioner
Level 3 equips you to design and run a Forest School safely and effectively. It is aimed at people who wish to set up a Forest School with children, young people or adults.
Level 3 is equivalent to A Level and can be delivered with less than 50% contact time. The award comprises 3 units and is worth 18 credits amounting to 60 notional learning hours.
Level 3 units are designed to be delivered together as three ‘modules’ to qualify the learner to become a Forest School Practitioner, able to set up and run a Forest School programme.
Student entry criteria for level 3
• Have considerable experience of working with young people
• Age 21 years or over
• Have a level 3 or above qualification (NNEB, Teacher, Play worker or Youth worker) to level 3 or equivalent OR level 2 with a portfolio of at least 2 years experience of working with children/young people in a leadership capacity
• Have a current CRB disclosure (or Disclosure Scotland Certificate)
• Have or be in the process of acquiring a current valid First Aid certificate (minimum 2-day ITC or equivalent), or tailored two-day First Aid in the Outdoors course delivered and certified by a provider registered with HSE
• Appropriate insurance cover and permissions for delivering a Forest School programme with your client group.
In order to qualify you will have to deliver 6 practice sessions.
Choosing a trainer
In the UK there are many Forest School Training Providers, running training programmes under different awarding bodies – OCN, BTEC, NCFE to name a few. We recommend that you research potential training providers thoroughly.
Things to consider
Recommendation: if you do not know of anyone personally, go onto some forums and ask about training providers: maybe ask about some of the things outlined below…
For many the training is the easy bit; completing the portfolio is more difficult – whether that be due to time constraints or, for some, lack of support from trainers, it can be a problem.
How will you be supported after the training to complete your portfolio? Finding a local trainer with local students is good for this as you can get together now and then and work on bits of the portfolio.
There is a portfolio support facebook page: Level 3 Forest School Portfolio Building and Essay Writing Support Group
Does the trainer come out to your site to carry out assessments?
Completion rates: contact the training company and ask how many people pass their course as a percentage, and what support they offer to help with completion. What is the support in addition to contact time with the trainer?
Location: is the course local? Are the people attending local to you? This can be a great support when trying to complete your portfolio as you can meet up. Also, after the course is finished, you’ll have created a local support network as you develop your Forest School. How well tied-in is the course provider to local support networks?
Experience: What experience does the trainer running the course have of delivering Forest School to a variety of groups over a sustained period of time? How long ago did they last deliver a full programme to children?
Forest School teams
Different Forest Schools use different configurations of leaders to run their sessions, eg, two leaders or one leader and one or more level 2 assistants. Smaller groups running onsite may just have one level 3 leader and a couple of parent or staff helpers. It is important that other staff involved with the programme participate in an introductory training session. They may go on to get a qualification.
Leaders do not necessarily need to be teachers, other staff can often schedule time for the preparation and delivery of Forest School more easily. To help the development of Forest School within a particular setting it is useful for all staff to experience an introductory session so they can understand and support the benefits reaching across the whole setting and curriculum. The Forest School leader works with the school or setting staff to continue themes looked at in the classroom into the woodland and vice versa.
You do NOT need a Forest School qualification to take your group on trips to the woods, this can be arranged through your setting’s normal visit procedures.
Becoming a Forest School Trainer
There are a few different routes available to become a trainer and you will need to satisfy the requirements of the awarding body to set up independently or do a Level 4 qualification, which should also require that candidates have the correct experience and qualifications. (Be aware Different companies have different tie-ins once you have completed the Level 4 qualification).
Forest School Leader Training video
The One Show’s Mike Dilger goes to the woods to talk to Forest School students about what they have learnt on the Leaders training course and how they will apply this with their groups. (6mins 46)
What activities happen at Forest School?
Because projects are child-led there is no set programme – one group may spend spend six weeks looking for insects and getting into insect identification, another group may not show an interest in this area but really want to build a shelter waterproof enough to sleep in, made only of natural materials.
Every activity provides a learning opportunity, even simple things like:
• splashing in puddles
• rolling in leaves
• catching rain on a tarpaulin
• building a snow slide
• drying mud out in the sun until it cracks
• sliding down a mud slide
• making mud pies
• looking for worms
• painting on a leaf…
As you can imagine the list of activities at forest school is endless! Check out our Activities section for ideas or to share your favourite activities with others.
Because of the high adult:child ratios and comprehensive training required of practitioners, other more involved activities can also take place, which would be built up to over a long period of time, such as tree climbing, lighting fires, outdoor cooking, low ropes challenges, using tools to make things or to help with construction.
A nourishing record of a day with young children in their outdoor setting in Saratoga Springs NY, with a look into why the resource exists. New York Times, 29 November 2009.
‘Outdoor learning is challenging traditional education root and branch, by teaching children self-esteem, team work and how to value nature.’ The Guardian, 21 April 2015.
Focus on a primary school in East Sussex using Forest School sessions and animal husbandry with its children. The Telegraph, 7 February 2016.
‘A new national survey of nature-based early childhood educators found that the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in the U.S. is at an all-time high.’ This article examines the findings. Natural Start Alliance (US), 17 November 2017.
A few other websites that may not be directly related to Forest School but have lots of related info that should be helpful…
See our Outdoor Play links section for loads more useful links to organisations & initiatives.
We always mention this site as it is so comprehensive and well written. If you haven’t already seen it this is a great blog site for all areas of being outdoors with your groups. Any questions just ask Juliet – she is so knowledgeable and helpful 🙂
“… a social enterprise with a mission to help people engage with nature to feel better about themselves in mind and body, in other words, we want people to get more out of life through getting outdoors.”
‘An exploration on naturalistic learning … provides a balance of academic research and case studies of children’s voices to explore all the facets of setting up and co-ordinating a Nature Kindergarten.’ Available from Muddy Faces.
This critique is written in the spirit of engaging in robust discussion and debate around Forest School in order to see the difficulties addressed and the positive contributions continue. Sections include • Forest School as a social construction • Forest School pedagogy • The commodification of Forest School • The positive aspects of Forest School. Mark Leather, University of St Mark & St John, Plymouth, September 2016.
Fully-referenced report explains the philosophy behind Forest Schools, why it’s been introduced in England & its relevance to the Early Years National Curriculum. It outlines the history & benefits of FS in the Early Years, how it can address current crises in the UK, and explains the problems encountered in delivering the initiative. The WritePass Journal, 1 December 2012.
Report summing up Forest School, some of the research into its benefits, and some challenges. By Sara Knight, Anglia Ruskin University, c2009.
Investigating ‘the potential impacts on health and wellbeing of woodland activities provided in Forest School-style sessions. Research carried out with a group of young people with learning difficulties.’ Part of the Good From Woods Project, 2011.
‘Forest School is promoted nationally as playing a beneficial role in child development, but less attention is given to its potential benefits for adults. This study worked with a group of adults with learning disabilities who attend a daycare centre in Bristol.’ Part of the Good From Woods Project, 2011.
Forest School: a marvellous opportunity to learn
• Full report
• Summary and another here
Participatory action research capturing the link between Forest School activities in England and Wales and their impact on children.
Impacts on children: • confidence • social skills • communication • motivation & concentration • physical skills • knowledge and understanding. Wider impacts: • new perspectives • ripple effects. Liz O’Brien and Richard Murray for the Forestry Commission, c2007.
The research highlights that children can benefit in a range of ways. Six themes emerged from the data of the positive impacts on children in terms of confidence, social skills, language and communication, motivation and concentration, physical skills and knowledge and understanding. Liz O’Brien & Richard Murray, Urban Forestry & Urban Greening 6 (2007) 249–265.
For children taking part there is a link between Forest School activities carried out in a specific environment and six specific, positive outcomes that relate to their self-confidence, self-esteem, team working, motivation, pride in, and understanding of their surroundings. Richard Murray, New Economics Foundation, April to November 2003
This research study analysed articles, research studies and case studies on outdoor learning and then evaluated the impacts of long term Forest School programmes on children’s resilience, confidence and wellbeing. It established that long term Forest Schools programmes had positive impacts on children’s resilience, confidence and wellbeing. Sarah Blackwell, Get Children Outdoors, c2015.
Full report of the ‘national survey of nature-based early childhood educators. More than 250 nature programs … serve approximately 10,000 children every year … However, the survey also suggests that the programs do not reflect
the cultural and linguistic diversity of our nation.’ Natural Start Alliance (US), 2017.
‘Research focus: to observe and document the impacts of the Forest School (FS) process on the wellbeing of young people, especially those who only came for six sessions, rather than longer term participants.’ Part of the Good From Woods Project, 2014.
“The research shows that the outdoor space provides new opportunities for children and teachers to interact and learn, and revealed how forest school leaders and children co-create a learning environment in which the boundaries between classroom and outdoor learning, teacher and pupil, are renegotiated to stimulate teaching and learning.” Frances Harris, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Hertfordshire, 10 May 2017.
Forest Schools are a growing phenomenon in the UK, but what impact does getting children outside of the classroom have on their overall development? Short video and written summary of educational outreach work undertaken by Loughborough University. 18 October 2017.
An evaluation of Forest School in England.
Outlines what Forest School is, how it came into being in Britain and what children do at Forest School. The report also presents findings from a longitudinal evaluation of three case study areas in Worcestershire, Shropshire and Oxfordshire, with some additional reference made to a Forest School setting in Somerset. Liz O’Brien and Richard Murray, October 2005
Excellent report from Jon Cree – it summarises the Forest School Association 2017 conference, but also asks the question ‘ What does Forest School have to contribute to health and well-being?’ and considers Jules Pretty’s three types of engagement to increase regular attentiveness and immersion – Nature engagement; Social engagement; and Craft engagement.
‘Sit Spots are used as a place where students can sit independently and connect with nature.’ Kindie Korner (Canada), 5 August 2015.
The ethos of Forest Schools can be applied to any environment: in a field at the back of your setting or on a beach – the emphasis of Forest School is the approach to the individual’s development and any outdoor environment can provide many of the resources you need to do this.
Woods are a special place for humans; we are linked to the woods as a place to forage for and find food to shelter and live. In more recent history the woods were important for providing employment (building ships and houses). It is only a relatively new way of living that has disconnected us from these wonderfully places, so diverse and rich.
Groups and individuals are often much more relaxed in a woodland environment (after the initial excitement/novelty has reduced). Woodlands are a fantastic learning environment: resource-rich, sheltered, challenging yet safe (as long as they are properly maintained). Woods are often close to local communities, and forever changing. Changes happen throughout the year, daily, weekly, seasonally and can even change during the session.
Woods provide a challenging, comfortable and exciting place to learn.
‘The Good from Woods research project (Plymouth University) explored how people are benefiting, personally and socially, from woodland activities in southwest England. Initiatives that deliver woodland activities recorded how participants feel about their experiences in order to build an evidence base.’ 15 case studies from a range of work, in various outdoor settings, with children, young people and adults with learning difficulties.
Arctic Outdoor Preschool
Why not give a 5 year old a sharp knife? Or a box of matches? Or let them climb a tree? The benefits of outdoor preschool education, even in the Arctic north of Norway. 2012. (1 min 59)
Best Day Ever
Engaging & inspiring film about a school in Vermont running Forest Fridays – with descriptions of benefits and skills development, words from teachers and parents, and comments from Joan Almon from the Alliance for Childhood, 2018. (15 mins 36)
Forest Schools Early Years
Nice exploration of Forest School and how it can link to school & curriculum in the UK. (13 mins 46)
Growing and Forest School: Redlands Primary School, Tower Hamlets
The school has a wild garden that is used by nursery pupils as part of Forest Schools to encourage them to discover different parts to the garden — the pond, plants, birds, creatures. The garden is also used regularly by different classes to bring the curriculum to life. Redlands Primary School, 2014. (4 mins 04)
Kids Gone Wild: Denmark’s Forest Kindergartens
Children are running wild in the mud, climbing high into trees and playing with knives, but no one is telling them off. This is kindergarten… Danish-style. 2016. (11 mins 33)
Nature Kindergarten – Frances Krusekopf – TEDx talk, Victoria
‘Inspired by her child’s experience in a forest preschool in Germany, Frances Krusekopf has developed a pilot project for kindergarten children to take their learning outdoors. The Nature Kindergarten pilot project is held in the Sooke School District (of British Colombia, Canada).’ 2015. (17 mins 03)
Reflections Nursery: Movement & Stillness in the Forest
Beautiful short film which demonstrates the thinking and learning that happens in a Forest School session, by documenting moments of stillness and movement, thinking and play at Reflections nursery in Worthing, 2014. (7 mins 46)
School’s Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten
This short documentary film takes us to a forest kindergarten in Switzerland where children age 4 to 7 spend every day outside in the forest. (6 mins 22)
South Lanarkshire Council Forest Kindergarten
Looking at a project where ‘Pupils from St Paul’s Nursery climb trees, make dens, hunt for treasure and explore the local woods assisted by Forestry Commission and Countryside Rangers.’ 2010. (5 mins 41)
Stroud School – Forest School
‘Putting the spotlight on outdoor learning at Stroud. To let prospective parents see what happens during Forest School sessions and what sort of skills the children are acquiring.’ 2011. (3 mins 40)
Ten things you should know about Forest School
Brooklyn Forest School offers outdoor classes for parents and their toddlers in Prospect Park. The children play in the dirt, search for wildlife and run across the park’s wide open meadows. 2012. (2 mins 16)
What is Forest School?
This short video answers the question “what is forest school” and gives an introduction to the subject, by forest school leaders and also the children who attend and why they love it. It is a useful resource for teachers, or parents looking for ideas for children’s activities outdoors. From Woodland Classroom, 2015. (5 mins 08)