An introduction to Forest School

Valley Primary School sits in beautiful, extensive grounds which offer the perfect setting for pupils to grow socially, academically, mentally, and physically outside of the classroom as well as within.

All pupils at Valley have half-termly access to learning in the great outdoors with our very youngest pupils having weekly access to the Forest School area to support many of the areas of learning within the Early Years Foundation Stage.

Forest School is an inspirational practice offering children the opportunities to develop self-esteem, independence, and cooperation through hands-on experiences in an outdoor setting.  It allows children time and space to develop skills, interests, and understanding through a range of child-centered activities.

It has roots that reach back to the open-air culture, the ‘free air life’ seen in Scandinavia where Forest School began.  It arrived in the UK in 1993 and has grown in strength since then.

It uses a holistic learning approach and over time the children adapt and review their learning, changing how they tackle activities according to the weather conditions which in turn helps to develop their resilience and creativity. The benefits of which can be seen in and out of the classroom. Children of all ages and abilities can participate in Forest School and it contributes to improved health and well-being.

Risks are managed through careful assessments of the site, clear rules that the children get to know, and understand well, and appropriate resources with support where needed so that all participants can join in a safe, meaningful, and exciting process that is sustainable for the natural world around them.

Forest School links easily to the National Curriculum and the Early Years curriculum.  The children wear old clothes, wellies, and waterproofs and go out to Forest School in all weathers, as long as it is safe to do so.  The Forest School Leaders are there, not to teach, but to facilitate, ensuring the resources and opportunities are available so that each child can reach deep-level learning through their own critical thinking and independence.

A typical Forest School session at Valley

Before beginning each session, the Forest School Leader prepares by checking the safety of the site. This ensures they are aware of any potential hazards or changes to the Forest School site and can prepare accordingly. The Forest School Leader also checks the weather forecast – the only weather that prevents Forest School from taking place is extremely high winds or thunder and lightning.

● Children prepare by dressing in their weather-appropriate clothing

● A special ‘head count’ is taken, the children participate and are involved so that the safety of the whole group is ensured.

● The children walk to Forest school and sit at ‘Base Camp’ where the rules are recapped. They say the rules and discuss what they mean, taking ownership of their session.

● A focus activity prepared by the Forest School Leader is explained, usually, topic linked. Children do not have to choose this task however it provides some structure for those that would like ideas and is often a starting point for their own independent exploration.

● Typically, a session during the school day will last between 1 – 2 hours.

● With a call of “1, 2, 3 – Base Camp”, the children tidy up and leave the site how they found it, returning to the log circle to discuss what they have done, share their learning, and enjoy a hot or cold drink. Hot Chocolate at the end of a session is high-light for many of the children and adults, especially in the Winter!

Examples of Forest School activities chosen by the children

● Using natural resources such as leaves and sticks to make repeating patterns or a Rangoli pattern

● Building a nest or home for an animal

● Creating dens and waterproof shelters

● Digging in the mud hole to find insects and ‘treasure’

● Making a shop from wood and finding objects to ‘sell’

● Mud painting

● Cooking using mud, water, grass, sticks, etc

● Whittling sticks using ‘easy peelers’

● Planting and using secateurs to cut back and maintain the site

● Tree/ bark rubbing

● Painting using rainwater and mud

Benefits of Forest School

The benefits of participating in Forest School are wide-ranging and far-reaching.  Children that take part in blocks of sessions at Forest School begin to show signs of play that are progressively deeper and more meaningful and the benefits can be felt back in the classroom environment.  The brain begins to form neural pathways that develop the way children behave, communicate, and interact as well as the enjoyment from exercise and being outside in the natural environment. Over time, these changes become permanent.  Regular sessions allow children the chance to develop trust with the adult leaders and their peers, following the rules because they understand the safety reasons. This deeper understanding can then be applied to the wider school or community rules. Children are allowed time and space to make their own choices and express their own creativity, connecting each child with their own sense of self-worth.

Forest School offers an alternative way to be active for those that do not enjoy taking part in competitive or mixed sports. It offers fresh air and lots of energetic movement and is accessible regardless of ability. It can develop life-long habits of walking and engaging with the environment.  Physical skills of balance, strength, and flexibility develop with regular participation and can then be applied to their daily lives and in other activities.  Children learn through new experiences, in a setting such as Forest School where the risks can be managed, children have the opportunity to approach tasks that in other settings may be seen as ‘unsafe’.  Children can learn and make progress by taking risks and assessing hazards, a skill that is important as they grow up and becomes young adults. When the participants take responsibility for the rules and how they are followed, this makes it easier to stick to them and improved behavior can be seen.  Adults and children alike now lead rushed lives, some with limited access to the natural world. As a result, this can lead to poor concentration, lack of motivation, and social skills.  Contact with nature can protect and enhance the well-being of children, develop coping strategies for the pressures of life, and promote resilience.  Forest School can create a sense of community, belonging, and security for the children, leaders, and parent helpers.

Outdoor Learning Plan

Since the full re-opening of school following the period of National lockdowns, Valley Primary School developed a program of outdoor learning for all year groups. The outdoor learning plans support the pupils development in different curriculum areas such as plants and habitats in science, directional work in geography team building skills in physical education. As part of the pupils’ outdoor learning, throughout an academic year, pupils have the opportunity to grow plants and vegetables in their allocated raised bed in the school orchard.