What is Forest School?
Forest School refers to an ethos and method of increasing confidence and self-esteem through facilitating largely child-led, hands-on experiences, facilitated through repeated visits to a natural environment. Forest school can be described as a learning method which falls into the larger category of outdoor learning.
Forest School usually takes place in a woodland environment. However, methods can be applied in most outdoor environments. The focus is on building a relationship with the natural world through a range of activities and experiences that are offered to participants.
Forest School aims to:
- Build self-esteem, independence, motivation to learn whilst always maintaining a safe environment.
- Promote awareness, respect and care for other individuals and for the natural environment.
- Reinforce collaborative behaviour.
- Develop awareness of acceptable behaviour and responsible behaviour in an outdoor environment.
- Develop in both children and adults a pride in their achievements.
Principles of Forest School
The Forest School Association (U.K.) states that Forest School practice involves the following principles:
- 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.
- Takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
- Uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
- Aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
- Offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
- Run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.
At Forest School all participants are viewed as:
- equal, unique and valuable
- competent to explore & discover
- entitled to experience appropriate risk and challenge
- entitled to choose, and to initiate and drive their own learning and development
- entitled to experience regular success
- entitled to develop positive relationships with themselves and other people
- entitled to develop a strong, positive relationship with their natural world
Flow learning and Forest School
The Flow Approach, devised by Joseph Cornell, identifies four stages of learning, representing four moods, which should ideally be followed as a sequence in order to create the ideal structure in which to learn in a natural environment:
- Awaken Enthusiasm – creating an atmosphere of curiosity, amusement, or personal interest.
- Focus Attention – concentrating on one physical sense to become calm, observant and receptive to surroundings.
- Experience Directly – absorbing, experiential activities that give deep, inner sense of belonging and understanding.
- Share Inspiration – giving opportunity to reflect and share on what has been learned.
Using this approach creates a flow – a process through which the learner gets led gently through the different stages, ensuring the right mood is created for learning. Cornell also emphasises the importance of showing respect for children and reverence for nature, as well as proposing five principles of outdoor learning:
- Teach less, share more: sharing your experience and wonder rather than presenting children with facts.
- Be receptive: listening, and being aware and sensitive – of children as well as nature.
- Focus the child’s attention without delay: by setting the tone right from the start, through listening, observing, and pointing out interesting sights.
- Look and experience first, talk later: experience wonder, quietly, absorb, allow direct experience. Look and ask questions. There is no need to label; it is the experience that matters.
- A sense of joy should permeate the experience: if the mood is happy and enthusiastic, children will be drawn to learn.
Embracing the strategies outlined by Cornell in a Forest School environment sets the stage for a grounded, structured Forest School session which gently guides learners through their interactions with the natural environment – sharing respect, enthusiasm, focus, experience, and the opportunity to reflect and share experiences with each other.
Suggested reading: Cornell, J. (1998) Sharing Nature with Children. 2nd Edition. Nevada: Dawn Publications.
Adults and Nature Connection
The woodland environment is deemed a place that is important to a sense of wellbeing, as well as the nature of activities which take place within the sessions. Forest School activities are described as ‘immersive’ activities, i.e. being so absorbent that they take the participant to a different place, allowing them to relax and heal. This practice of becoming fully immersed in an activity can be difficult for adults.
The effect on Forest School on improving mental health in adults has been discussed, for example, by Sara Knight. She identifies a recent trend within Forest School, which is the increased delivery of Forest School sessions to adults, with the aim of increasing mental health and self esteem and resilience.
Forest school fosters respect for the environment and each other as human beings. Experiencing empathy for peers, animals, even little insects supports a person’s emotional development and wellbeing.
Reconnecting with Nature
Reconnect with Nature aims to provide opportunities to groups of children and adults to avail of these experiences by offering:
- Forest School (programmes of 5, 10 or ongoing sessions for groups)
- Monthly Family Forest days
- After School Club
- Holiday camps
- Adult sessions