The magic of Forest School Camps

The magic of Forest School Camps

"Forest School!” calls the leader. “Caaaamps!” chime in 119 other voices.

We’re in a field. Cold, wet, muddy. It’s the middle of a Welsh summer. And there’s a hurricane coming.

We’re getting ready to batten down the hatches. To make sure that everything is shipshape, pegged down and ready for the coming storm. And we go at it with a will.

I see a determined 4-year-old dragging a heavy spade, helping a group of camp elders to dig a new fire pit. There are 6-year-olds holding down flapping canvas, hair and voices whipped wild by the rising wind. Groups of enthusiastic teenagers sing rousing sea shanties as they stack up wood for the fire – a human chain of grinning children pulling together for the benefit of the community.

And as I look around me, I’m filled with such wonder and gratitude for this: the pulling together of individuals for the benefit of the whole. It’s challenging. It’s glorious. And it works.

In Forest School Camps, we call this ‘the Good of the Lodge’.

I grew up like this. No ‘normal’ annual family holiday for us – just Forest School Camps. Two weeks of every year spent camping in all weathers. Food cooked on open fires in old army six-gallon pots. Children divided into groups by age, with names like Pixies, Elves, Woodlings, Trailseekers, Trackers and Pathfinders. A couple of people from each group brought together each day to be ‘on clan’ – to cook for the whole ‘lodge’. Huge evening campfires where we all sat and sang sea shanties, folk songs, 60s protest songs. Two weeks of being myself – letting go of the ‘me’ I had to be at school to fit in. Two weeks of living outdoors, making lifelong friendships, overcoming challenges and coming together for The Good of the Lodge.

Forest School began as a progressive educational establishment in 1930s England and drew its philosophy from Native American teachings, the Woodcraft movement and Quaker beliefs. An emphasis was placed on everyone learning to work and play together while being close to nature. The school closed during the second world war, but, in 1948, former staff and pupils came back together to continue nurturing the original ethos in a new format – Forest School Camps (FSC).

My grandmother had attended those early camps and enjoyed them so much that she introduced her sons (my father and uncle) to FSC. They loved it and it became a huge part of our family’s life, informing so much of who I am and how I interact with the world.

The FSC website states: “Our education is about discovering for oneself how to do something rather than being told in the abstract. The outdoors demands and encourages learning.”

It’s midnight. It’s very dark and very, very wet. Water is sheeting down the hill behind us. Thunder rumbles all around. I’m up with the other night owls – those of us who sit up late around the fire, talking, laughing, singing. The storm comes in full force and it is formidable. The river is rising; threatening to flood the Woodlings’ tents. We grab picks, shovels, storm lanterns and set to. We’re digging a trench around their site – 20 tents of sleeping 9-year-olds (and a couple of snoring adults!). Silently, grimly, we dig, slowly making progress, diverting the rush of water from the slumbering children. I look up, catch someone’s eye and we grin wildly. There’s such a joy in this – the rain, the mud, the determination, the teamwork, the success.

As I write this, I realise how many of my Good of the Lodge moments are tied up with the weather – well, the rain and wind to be precise – and with surviving it!

The sunny days hold nice memories of sitting around doing crafts, swimming in mountain rivers, playing huge games of killer frisbee and puttocks. But the real grit for me, the real deep feeling of challenge and pride, success and power, comes from when the times were tough. These are the memories I hold dear in my heart: when we were under pressure, confronting the elements, pulling together and conquering difficulties.

John Taylor, an old FSC friend who is now a headteacher in the UK, recently featured in the Crossing the Threshold podcast, and his words echo what’s in my heart:

Growing up in FSC gave me such a sense of power. When you’re 14 and it’s raining and you could light a fire and look after your stuff, that was really empowering. You felt strong and capable and it opens up your world to ‘I could do anything’. And add the collective context into that. That you can not only do that individually but that you are supporting the rest of the group and seeing how much more the whole is than the sum of its parts, when you are lumped together in a really challenging situation, looking after each other rather than after the self, and the camaraderie that comes from that. The sense of joy – the sense of really feeling like you are a part of each other and you’re with each other. You’ve been through it together. Even if the thing you’ve been through is spending six hours digging a hole in the rain, that stays with you.

John has spent a lot of time working out how he can pull this sense of individual and social accountability into an urban secondary school setting and, as I listened, I realised that many of us who grew up through Forest School Camps do the same: pull that Good of the Lodge mentality into our everyday work and lives.

FSC gave me a profound sense of pride in my own capabilities and a deep sense of moral responsibility. How to look out for others, to draw on my own strength, to weave it with the knowledge and vision of others, and to bring forth that cooperative power for the growth of the whole community, to influence real collective change. 


Josie Gritten is a lifestyle family photographer who captures families in all their raw glory and connection. She’s also a childbirth educator, doula, mother and foster mother. She lives in New Zealand and divides her time between exciting projects and mundane daily tasks, and is passionate about birth and families. You can find her photography work at and her birth work at


Published in issue 88. Accurate at the time this issue went to print. 

Back to blog

Are you finding value in our content?

Subscribe to JUNO and receive a new issue packed with nurturing parenting content every other month!

You'll also gain unlimited access to our fully searchable digital archives, with thousands of articles to explore...

Subscribe today