Summarise the Forest School approach to learning

This post is part of the series Forest School Portfolio

The exact aims, objectives and ethos of different Forest School provision will vary depending on the location, size and type of woodland, the age and needs of the learners and the individual practitioner leading the Forest School sessions. There are common elements though and in 2011 six key principles were agreed by the UK Forest School community that form a shared and widely accepted Forest School ethos.

These six principles are listed below along with questions that will prompt reflection on how the provision in your setting matches the Forest School ethos. It may be that it doesn’t meet all six of the principles at this point. Don’t worry about this but do explain how you might be able to change or adapt the provision so that it does.

Principle 1: Forest School 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.

The impact of Forest School sessions will be greatest when the same group of children are given the opportunity to visit the same woodland setting together on a regular basis over an extended period of time.

  • How long are the sessions you run?
  • Do your learners get to visit the woodland on a weekly basis?

Forest school sessions should involve elements of reviewing and reflecting the activities and experiences that have taken place during the session. This supports confidence building and communication skills. Feedback from learners should be taken into account when planning future sessions and leaders should be flexible if that feedback requires deviation from any planned activities.

  • What format does your planning take? How do you link your sessions together with a common theme instead of delivering one-off sessions?
  • How do you evaluate your sessions? How do you involve learners in the review process?
  • How do you demonstrate the progress learners have made over time? Do you keep records of observations or take photos of activities?

Principle 2: Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.

Ideally Forest School sessions will be run in a woodland large enough to accommodate the size of the group and allow a range of activities without having a significant negative impact on the site. A good Forest School programme will consider, and minimise, its impact on the environment. This might include rotating the area used on a site or adapting or avoiding specific activities. Sessions should involve opportunities for learners to consider their relationship both with the site and the wider natural world.

  • How do you assess the environmental impact your sessions are having on your site? Is there positive impact as well as negative? Do you involve learners in this?
  • What do you do in your sessions to encourage learners to develop a relationship with the natural world?

Principle 3: Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.

The role of the Forest School leader is one of a facilitator, rather than teacher, providing opportunities and encouragement for children to learn through play and exploration. Forest School sessions should be child-led and session plans should allow for flexibility with practitioners prepared for and encouraging children to deviate from planned activities.

  • How do you build flexibility into your sessions plans?
  • How structured are your sessions? What opportunities for learners have to decide what they are going to do and how they are going to do it?

Principle 4: Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.

As well as learning about the natural environment and developing practical skills, sessions should provide opportunities for children to develop their self awareness, social and communication skills and emotional intelligence.

Forest School sessions should be safe environments for all. Everyone at the session, regardless of age or role, should be treated as an equal and learners should feel free to talk openly and express emotion without fear of teasing or ridicule.

  • How do you include holistic development in your session planning?
  • What activities do you run that allow learners the opportunity to develop their social and emotional skills?

Principle 5: Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.

Children should be given regular opportunities to take appropriate risks, such as tool use, fire lighting and tree climbing. These opportunities will build self confidence, allow children to learn and develop their physical and mental limits and make them better equipped to handle risk.

Research continues to show that the amount of freedom children are given and the time they spend, freely and independently, playing outdoors have both decreased over the years with a significant number of children having never built a den or climbed a tree. The term Nature Deficit Disorder has been used to describe this phenomenon and draw attention to the impact this lack of contact with the natural world is having on children and young people. Access to Forest School, or similar outdoor based opportunities, are increasingly important.

  • What risk based activities do you provide for learners? How do you judge or manage the risk?
  • What progress have you seen learners make as a result of being able to take part in these activities?

Principle 6: Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.

Forest School sessions should be led by trained forest school leaders who have an understanding of both practical skills and activities but also understand relevant learning and developmental theories. Only with both of these will practitioners be able to effectively design, match and adapt activities to learners with different learning styles to meet their individual needs. There is always more to learn and the most effective Forest School leaders are open to continuing to develop their skills and knowledge long after completing their qualification,

  • What qualifications do the Forest School leaders in your setting have?
  • What skills or knowledge do you feel your need to, or want to, develop? How do you plan to do this?

If you want to read more about the Forest School ethos the Forest School Association website features the full principles and the criteria for good practice.

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