By Geoffrey Guy
Forest School is an inspirational process, that offers ALL learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.
PRINCIPLES OF FOREST SCHOOLS
These principles were first articulated by the Forest School Community in the UK in 2002.
- FS is a long-term process of regular sessions, rather than a one-off or infrequent visits; the cycle of planning, observation, adaptation and review links each session.
- FS takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
- FS uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
- FS aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
- FS offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
- FS is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.
Today the Forest Schools movement in the UK is well on the way to becoming a mainstream phenomenon, which started out with a visit to Denmark in 1993 by staff from Bridgewater College. The visit included Danish nature kindergartens and the visitors were inspired by the way children developed through child-centred outdoor play.
On their return to the UK the Bridgewater team began to establish their own programmes of early years outdoor learning and called it ‘Forest Schools’ the name stuck and over the next few years the college started delivering training for people who wanted to run their own Forest School programmes. Over twenty years later there are now around 10,000 people in the UK holding a Forest School leaders qualification.
Forest Schools became established during the 90’s in the UK under similar circumstances to its Swedish counterpart ‘Skogsmulle’ during the 50’s. The concern in 1950’s Sweden was that as industry moved from land based professions into the cities, and the people moved with those industries, the connection that rural populations, and particularly children, had with the natural world was being lost.
THE SKOGSMULLE PROGRAMME
Skogsmulle was established to combat this perceived disconnection with nature by the Swedish Friluftsfrämjandet - literally fresh air foundation - and the equivalent to the UK’s Institute for Outdoor Learning. In the 1950’s Gösta Frohm was employed by the Friluftsfrämjandet to train leaders and develop activities and in 1957 he started the Skogsmulle programme.
Mulle - a troll who lives in the woods, delivers the programmes to the children. Skogsmulle leaders dress as Mulle and deliver the programmes in character.
Mulle helps engage young children with the natural world. The principle was used by Frohm to encourage a healthy understanding and interaction with nature. Since its inception over 1 million children have experienced Skogsmulle and over the years a whole ensemble of characters has evolved to help Mulle teach children about the natural world and different ecosystems.
- Laxe - Mulle’s friend who deals with river and wetland ecosystems
- Fjällfina - who is from the mountains
- Nova - the latest addition to Mulle’s team is a character from space
Nova has no experience of pollution and shares principles of sustainability, recycling and environmental responsibility. This concept allows children to experience the outdoors with a consistent theme and story to encourage engagement.
Similar approaches in UK Forest Schools see practitioners using books such as “Stick Man” by Julia Donaldson as a basis for play, learning and connection with nature.
Skogsmulle later spawned a range of programmes for other age groups including the ‘In rain or shine’ programme known as ‘I Ur Och Skur’ for 5-6 yr olds. Similar programmes exist in other Scandinavian countries including Metsamoori in Finland, Frilufts Barnehagein and åbørnspædagogik in Denmark.
This approach encapsulating the natural world in stories and self-led discovery, delivering a healthy dose of fresh air in all conditions was the approach seen in Denmark back in 1993 that inspired the development of Forest Schools in the UK. The aim to facilitate the development of environmental literacy amongst child participants in Forest School and similar programmes is a noble one, which will benefit young people’s families and communities as well as themselves.
The Friluftsfrämjandet published their aims as a ‘natural flight of steps’ highlighting the first steps delivered by the Forest Schools style skogsmulle and I ur och skur programmes which include the aim of learning to be in and enjoy nature and eventually progressing to understand how we have an impact on nature and the environment and eventually form their own opinions on environmental issues and influence society.
Children who develop environmental literacy through exposure to nature through Forest Schools’ programmes are hopefully further empowered by the confidence building experience of free play and experiential learning encouraged by Forest Schools. Taking away lessons about nature and the environment from their experiences during Forest Schools allows children to share those lessons and begin to influence society starting at home.
As a forest schools leader myself I find it very rewarding to see children take environmental lessons away from forest school experiences. I’ve heard fantastic comments from children who have made connections between their lives and nature, one of my favourite was a little girl leaving one of my forest school sessions and telling her mother:
“We need to find a hazel tree, because that’s where Nutella comes from”.
It’s this kind of infectious enthusiasm from children that will affect their families and hopefully encourage them to seek out further opportunities to get involved in healthy outdoor activities through clubs and societies such as the scouting and guiding programmes or just through family leisure pursuits out of doors.
OBSERVING CHANGING BEHAVIOR
Some other examples of children developing and changing over the course of their involvement can be found in trainee forest school leader’s portfolios, as part of their training every forest school leader must observe and document the changing behaviour of participants in the courses over a six week period. As a trainer of Forest School leaders I have read many of these portfolios but I always return to my own experiences when looking for examples of child development in Forest Schools.
My experiences as a trainee Forest School leader helped me appreciate the value of Forest Schools as a social development tool not just as a means of facilitating environmental education. As an experienced countryside and wildlife management professional at the time of my Forest Schools training it was the environmental education that most interested me initially but the social development aspect of the programme had never occurred to me before I observed its benefits in action.
A child I had on the course (I wrote up as part of my training) made a particular impression on me. This child will be in secondary school now but at the time was in preschool and I hope that what he learned with me has helped him develop sensibilities about his environment and the nature he encounters that will allow him to make environmentally sensitive decisions. The social side of his development was the most obvious to me as his teacher.
MY WRITE UP
The child was obviously distressed at the thought of being left by his mother on the first session, although I’m not sure if that is a normal response to being dropped off at nursery or if it was because of the new surroundings at the Forest Schools site. Throughout that first session he seemed less willing than others to join in especially on the blindfold trail which he did not fully take part in and even on the spider web which was very popular with the other children. Although he did not cry throughout the session as I feared he might when I saw him getting dropped off he certainly was not entirely comfortable or happy.
However in contrast the following week he seemed much happier and enthusiastically took part in the first activity of preparing pizzas to cook on the camp fire. His enjoyment of the first activity and the snacks no doubt seemed to carry over into the rest of the day and he was much happier and even enthusiastically took part in the spider web.
Over the following weeks although there were a few more tears on one occasion as he was dropped off he was always quick to join in the activities and I saw him more and more with a huge grin on his face as he raced around to hide in the grass or take part in an activity. He seemed to be more comfortable working on his own than in a group and managed to make a spectacular tree face on the fourth session with no help.
The product of a clay tree face making activity. The children dug the clay from the pond and made these faces themselves.
I allowed the children where possible to choose whether to work as small groups or as individuals for activities such as Fairy plates and craft activities such as the tree faces and he seemed to benefit from this as he could work on his own. However during the more active games such as camouflage he seemed inclined to stay with another person as they ran to hide and was certainly happier doing the hiding rather than the seeking.
By the end of the course he had certainly developed a lot in confidence and seemed very comfortable in the woods and even with a blindfold on to take part in the water squirt game (although being able to squirt people with water may have been an incentive to put on the blindfold) something he had not been willing to do on the first session.
OUTDOOR AND ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION
Although outdoor recreation was a well-established and growing trend in the 90’s, there were generations who had completely lost touch with nature and in doing so had lost the knowledge and skills of the outdoors, exactly the thing that Gösta Frohm feared in 1950’s Sweden. The country had evolved a culture biased heavily towards health and safety concerns and eliminating risk, as opposed to the Scandinavian culture that appeared to treasure and embrace outdoor knowledge and ‘friluftsliv’ that is outdoor or fresh air life.
By 1993 the UK had also lost many of its traditional forest workers. Agriculture and forestry had already been dominated by machinery and the majority of the working population had no need to spend time outside other than for recreation.
When forest schools were first launched, they came as a breath of fresh air for many educators and outdoor enthusiasts who had become frustrated with the very prescriptive national curriculum which despite formally mentioning the need for outdoor and environmental education schools were often only able to deliver these objective sporadically and often ineffectively.
Many also recognise the potential of Forest Schools’ programmes to re-establish links to nature that had so evidently been lost over the years and perhaps even re-awaken some of the lost skills and traditions of the countryside.
CHILD-CENTRED AND CHILD-LED
The UK’s Forest Schools are in effect a social movement rather than a programme of dedicated environmental education. It is firmly based on a style of learning that is child-centred and child-led and it was this style of child-led learning that was so revolutionary at the time of their inception. Hopefully the benefits of Forest School programmes will become more obvious to parents, teachers and to academics who are studying the value of Forest Schools. Now that Forest Schools are established, there is no limit to the benefit of this kind of early years, nature-based, child-led education.