At Four Marks Primary we are dedicated to providing the opportunity for our children to participate in Forest School.
We are extremely fortunate that we have a number of staff who are passionate about the benefits of Forest School: Miss Esther Andrews, a Level 3 Forest School Leader, is our Forest School Leader/ Teacher at Four Marks Primary School. In addition, Miss Katharine Jackson will complete her training to be a Forest School Teacher/ Leader (Level 3) in 2021, and Mrs Jo Maxwell began her training in 2020.
What is Forest School?
Perhaps it is easier to start with what it is not. It is not classroom-based or curriculum-specific nor is it driven by academic assessment criteria that focus on targets and assumed measurable progress. Sessions are not broken into time or task-specific chunks with a predetermined agenda, skill or assessment. It is not about forcing children to perform dangerous tasks in front of others. It is not a new fad that has been thought up or delivered by tree-hugging hippies. If it’s not this – what is it?
Forest School is not a ‘school’ in the conventional sense – there are no buildings. Forest School may take place in the woods, in the grassland, in the open. The experience gives children and adults of all abilities regular opportunities to gain confidence and self-worth. Forest School is a great place to relearn about play and self-discovery which are then brought back into everyday life and learning.
Forest School takes place outside, with each session lasting no less than two hours, over a period of six to eight weeks, sometimes longer. In the case of Four Marks, our Reception children participate throughout the year. We plan to extend this to all children across the school participating in a block of 6-8 weeks. Each session is based on the 6 key principals of Forest School.
The Value of Forest School
Forest School is an inspirational approach to learning which is gathering pace across the United Kingdom. Originally based on the Scandinavian education system which highlights the importance of contact with the natural world from an early age, Forest School was brought to the UK in 1993 by a group of nursery nurses from Bridgwater College in Somerset.
In the past 25 years the number of Forest School settings across Britain has greatly increased as the idea has become more widely known. Indeed, the Department for Education (DfE) has stated that, “There is strong evidence that good quality learning outside the classroom adds much value to classroom learning” (DfE, 2006) , and the Office for Standards in Education suggested, “Outdoor education gives depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students’ physical, personal and social education” (Ofsted, 2004).
The definition and core principles of Forest School were established in 2011. The 6 principles are the cornerstone that lies at the heart of practice as we know it today.
They are as follows:
- Forest School is a long term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment.
- Forest School takes place in a woodland to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
- Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
- Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
- Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.
- Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning.
Forest School Association, 2011
Where these principles are being correctly adhered to, the children experience Forest School sessions carefully tailored to their age and stage. These sessions offer them the opportunity to spend extended time exploring the natural world, something not all children experience due to greater concerns about safety and lack of accessible woodland spaces. The Forest School leader places emphasis on the process rather than outcomes, and children receive a good amount of ‘free play’ time- something they are entitled to according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (2015).
Forest School leaders recognise the importance of play for the invaluable impact it has on communication, vocabulary, collaboration and social relationships, understanding the world, creativity and imagination, knowledge of scientific and mathematical concepts, confidence to explore and try something new. Research suggests that children engage in more imaginative play when in a natural space because of the wider opportunities to change the landscape and make ‘special spaces’ for play.
At a time when much of life and play is increasingly inside and static, this experience provides an opportunity for children of all ages as well as adults to be outside, to be reminded of what it is ‘to be’, whether that is to be still, to explore, to play or to wonder, to question. Forest School has a distinct approach, that can be summed up as play-based, participant-centred learning, combined with observation and evaluation in the presence of a Forest School teacher. Those participating will explore, learn, achieve and develop skills with wood, insects, trees, fire, mud, water, seasons, string, knots and more. Through their choice of tasks, they will play, develop and practice skills and they will become more resilient to challenges and take ever-increasing joy and delight in their successes and those around them. They will take what they ‘learn’ with them back into the classroom and into their everyday.
Can PLAY at Forest School be linked back to the curriculum?
‘All children need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated’ (Playwork Principles, 2005).
Play and the freedom of choice are a vital part of the Forest School ethos, and time is set apart in every Forest School session to allow children time to enter a ‘flow’ state of play without interruption or time limits that may govern the classroom.
By taking children away from their classrooms and putting them in a completely different environment, Forest School works alongside the curriculum in supporting children’s understanding of the world, growth, change and decay. Children are inspired to value the biodiversity and habitats around them, and they develop a strong sense of stewardship and good understanding of sustainability. Sharing time with the group around the fire gives all members of a group a sense of belonging, both to each other, and to the woodland. They understand that they are privileged to share the environment with the animals, plants and trees.
In a traditional, teacher-led view of education, children learn primarily by following directions. While there is a place for this within Forest School (e.g. fire lighting or tool use), generally children are allowed to follow their own lines of curiosity and have the time and space to explore their own wonder and ask questions. They are given enough boundaries to ensure they feel physically and emotionally safe, but they are also given more freedom than they acquire in a traditional classroom setup. By allowing them to lead the way, they learn the soft skills of human experience, curiosity, questioning, resilience, risk assessment and collaboration.
As explained above, there is no specific curriculum focus to the planning and delivery on Forest School. However, it would be very wrong to assume there is no ‘cross over’. Close working with all class teachers at Four Marks Primary School enable our Forest School leaders to be aware of their topic work, literacy focus or specific vocabulary they are focusing on in class and make specific reference and reinforce , where relevant, the link between the woodland and classroom.
All experiences, individual or group, can help with the use of adjectives, descriptions and feeling in any and all aspects of their work in English. It is also important to note that conversation and questioning help to boost confidence with the written word – the spoken word and first hand experience is an essential pre-curser to writing. Whether cutting or making, den building or fire-lighting, key Mathematical elements will be practised in a 'real-life' context. (Measuring, estimating, counting, dividing and sorting.)
Science is also a key part of the Forest School experience. Seasonal change runs through the whole year. An understanding of the nature of trees through Spring, Summer and Autumn and Winter is developed alongside the specific vocabulary to describe these changes. The impact of temperature on key elements of water and nature is explored. Children find and identify a range of mini beasts. They learn to appreciate the environmental impact we have in the woods and how we can reduce long term damage.
At a time when all of us are increasingly less active, it is important to highlight the huge amount of exercise that takes place at Forest School. The majority of the children are on their feet for two hours. During this time they use a combination of gross and fine motor skills. They engage a huge range of muscles – whether climbing, sawing, swinging or jumping. Den-making alone is a full body work out! Such physicality no doubt has a positive impact on their everyday life, but also in more structured PE lessons.
Perhaps the most important ‘curriculum link’ is that of well-being. Forest School gives us all, children and adults, an opportunity to connect with nature and the fresh air. Much of this well-being is achieved by just being outside! However, each session includes a time out – where we lie on the ground under the ‘hello goodbye tree.’ These precious minutes enable us to focus on our breathing, the weight of our bodies on the ground and listen to the sounds around us. It is a time to let go of worries, to relax physically and emotionally. It is my hope that such techniques are practised during other elements of their week or life.