Everything you need to know about Forest School

Everything you need to know about Forest School

The first Forest Schools originated in Scandinavia where outdoor living is regarded as an important part of their culture. It was introduced into the UK in 1993 when a group of early years teachers visited a school in Denmark and were so inspired by this outdoor, child-centred approach that they set up their very own school in Somerset.

My own personal journey into Forest School began in 2016 when my youngest daughter started primary school. I was keen to return to work in the education sector but didn’t want to return to fulltime teaching, deciding instead to set up a toddler group in my local woodland. My training began soon afterwards.

I was immediately drawn to the ethos of Forest School and was delighted to see how well children responded to being outdoors in the woods with a range of resources and activities to choose from. As an ex-teacher it was completely different to what I was used to, namely having lessons planned down to the finest detail, with set objectives and learning intentions. It was fantastic to work without curriculum restrictions and without the pressure of ticking boxes, and to see the children have the freedom to follow their interests.

With Forest School planning I’m guided by the seasons, the flora and fauna of the woodland, and the children’s own passions. One session was even inspired by a conversation between a parent and her little boy en route to Forest School; they had chatted to a local gardener who had spied lizards basking in the sun when tending to wildflowers on a grass verge. The following week we trouped off with our magnifying glasses to search for the lizards ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any lizards, but we had so much fun simply hunting for them and ended up creating camouflage pictures with toy lizards instead. Whilst it would have been fantastic to spy a lizard, we still had a memorable session.

What is Forest School?

Forest School…

  • Takes place in a natural environment
  • Is a child-centred approach to learning 
  • Encourages the holistic development of the child
  • Takes place over a long-term programme of sessions
  • Is led by a qualified Forest School practitioner
  • Encourages supported risks

A Natural Environment

Another memorable session was with a class of year 6 children. The previous week there had been a falling out involving some rough and tumble with a few of the boys, so I decided we’d try to have a calming start to the session: two minutes of mindfulness or ‘sit spots’, where the children choose a place to sit either on the ground, or in a tree, and ‘just be’. The aim is to listen, feel and experience a natural environment. After the first minute, a white dove flew down from a tree and started walking in-between the children. We were amazed, and it was lovely to see the children trying to alert their classmates to the dove without scaring it away. I really think it was a great lesson, demonstrating that when there is peace, quiet and stillness, nature will pay a visit even in a small space of greenery within an urban environment.

A Long-term Programme of Sessions

Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen the benefits that children reap when they attend for a term or longer. One-off holiday sessions and birthday parties are great fun (and I do run these types of sessions), but the magic really happens when children get a regular dose of being in the woods with the same group of children and the same leader. It is then that a sense of community can develop and relationships can flourish. The children’s confidence grows in leaps and bounds as they get used to the routine, the activities, and the woodland itself. I always begin sessions with a walk around the woods, and I find this is a great way for both the children and parents to unwind and relax so that they are ready to start the session. It’s a ritual that we all find reassuring and it’s also a great learning experience for everyone to experience each change of the seasons in the wood, and the effect on the trees, flowers, animals, and birds.

Taking Supported Risks

Children at Forest School are also given opportunities to explore their surroundings and take part in hands-on activities that although might be deemed risky, have measures in place so that those risks are minimised. Activities such as tree climbing might be thought to be hazardous, but the benefits to children, such as physical and social development and increased resilience levels, outweigh the negatives. Even toddlers can use hammers and bow saws with appropriate guidance and support. For them to use tools that they’ve only seen adults use before gives a real boost to their self-esteem and confidence. Enjoying an end-of-term campfire is an enjoyable treat and one that toddlers can enjoy with support.

Holistic Development

Whilst you might typically expect children who attend a Forest School to develop both physically and socially, there are so many other positives too. Language development, problem-solving skills (den building), personal risk management skills (tree climbing, using tools and sitting around the campfire), life skills, and creative skills are also fostered. Some of the popular activities at both toddler groups and with older children at schools are bug hunting and bird watching. Both enable children to observe and interact with nature which in turn leads to environmental stewardship as the children learn how to gently handle the insects and discover which conditions are best for spotting birds. There is strong evidence to suggest that children who spend time in nature are more likely to take action to protect their local environment.

Nature Connection

Knowing how much better I personally feel when I’ve been outdoors, whether gardening or taking the dog for a walk, makes me feel that Forest School is a great form of nature therapy and boosts our wellbeing. Spending time in the woods is the perfect antidote to our highly digital age and increasingly sedentary lifestyles. It also enables children to unwind and decompress which is so important with our increasingly pressured modern lifestyles. I passionately believe that children need to spend time in natural environments where they can let off steam and simply play and explore their surroundings, and Forest School does all this.


Kate Haines lives with her husband, two children, a rescue dog and two ex-battery chickens. She runs @muddypuddlesforest_school for toddlers, parents and school children in Leamington Spa.

Find out more
The Forest School Association


Published in issue 74. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

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