Setting up a Forest School

Mud painting in the woods

Starting a Forest School

Forest Schools are run by qualified Forest School Leaders who have undertaken and completed accredited training. This is usually achieved through the APT awards Level 3 training through a recognised training provider (organisations like the Forest of Avon Trust that are part of the Forest School Trainers Network).

This training equips the leader with the skills and knowledge to support groups safely and effectively in natural outdoor settings.

As part of their training all leaders will have produced a handbook which acts as a guiding set of documents that outlines how they will deliver activities with their groups. They will also have completed six practice sessions, where they will lead a group.

Forest School, as outlined in its core principles, is run as a programme of activity over time to support groups in developing a positive relationship with each other and the natural world around them. It’s a good idea to think about how you could offer your group regular sessions over time and where sessions might take place.

Where possible Forest School should be experienced in a local woodland. It’s possible to provide a valuable experience in other green spaces that have trees present. It is important to have wilder and less managed areas for children to explore so a formal or recreation park is often unsuitable.

Some educational settings use their own staff to deliver Forest School sessions and others bring in external freelancers or organisations to deliver this specialist work. If you want to set up a Forest School you need to think about who could best lead it and getting them trained.

If you are thinking of training yourself or a staff member, see our Frequently Asked questions about training for more information about the Level 3 course and entry requirements. The training takes approximately a year to complete. Our YouTube video provides some insights into what the training might be like.

Preparing for Forest School sessions

Often when establishing new nature based activities it is most appropriate to start with simple but highly effective experiential activities such as those learnt on a two day Introduction to Forest School or Level 1 training course.

Having tried these activities and knowing that you have the support and backing of the school, you can consider making the leap to getting Level 3 trained in order to run regular Forest School sessions.

The training will provide you with plenty of ideas for games, art and craft projects amongst other things, as well as the confidence to run activities such as fire-lighting. It should also help you to manage your woodland area in the long term.

You should be able to carry out most Forest School activities with minimal kit, however you will have to invest in some essentials, so a small budget is needed.

A significant other cost, but probably the best investment you can make, are waterproofs for your group. You need to know that the group will stay dry and happy in wet weather. Waterproofs also help keep the wind out and reduce wear and tear on clothes underneath.

The roots of Forest School

Forest School, as we now know it, is a relatively recent phenomena. In the UK it is delivered and supported in a specific way. However the idea and practice of undertaking activities outdoors and in natural settings is clearly not a new one.

The importance of taking children outdoors and into natural spaces was identified by key educators such as Pestalozzi, Froebel & Steiner as early as the 1800s. This was partly a reaction to the industrialisation of society and the development of a disconnect between people and the natural world.

In the UK the McMillan sisters’ outdoor schools in London, and Baden-Powell’s scouting and guiding movement, pushed forward these ideas in the early 1900s.

Outdoor education and outdoor learning really started to take off in the post-war era throughout Europe. In Scandinavia a strong culture of learning and development in nature developed from the 1950s onwards. This fostered a strong connection between young children and the natural world that still exists today.

In the UK a focus on learning through environmental education in schools struggled to really take root. However the development of groups such as the Institute of Earth Education, which aimed to strengthen learning and experience of the natural world, significantly informed the modern Forest School approach.

The Forest School Movement

The development of Forest School activities in the UK dates back to 1993 following an exchange trip by nursery staff from Bridgwater College to Denmark. The staff were so inspired by the outdoor activities they observed that they came back and developed a similar approach to learning and development at the college.

Bridgwater College developed the first accredited qualification, the BTEC Forest School Leaders award. This has been further developed into a stronger qualification now awarded through APT (a national awarding organisation, regulated by Ofqual).

For over 10 years the Forest Education Initiative (FEI) was involved in promoting and supporting Forest School. Run through the Forestry Commission (as part of its role to promote broader forest education), the FEI helped to set up local cluster groups to provide networking support for practitioners.

In the last few years the The Forest Education Network (FEN) has taken forward some of the old FEI’s work. The Institute for Outdoor Learning has also taken a supportive role in helping the strong and ever growing Forest School community to become independently established. In July 2012, after lengthy discussion and consultation with Forest School practitioners, a new national governing body the Forest School Association (FSA) was launched.  More information about these organisations can be found in Networks & Support.

Clearly for people to have meaningful experiences in natural places they do not need to be on a Forest School session. Many groups such as the Woodcraft Folk, Scouts and Guides, as well as outdoor pursuits and bushcraft offer valuable and meaningful experiences. Many schools and educators run a range of outdoor activities that work well for their groups and provide learning and developmental opportunities.

The Forest School Approach

With the development of Forest School, as we understand it in the UK, an approach to engaging groups in woodland settings has emerged. This resulted in a set of principles that were initially outlined through work in the FEI in 2002. As the Forest School Community has grown and become much more established this approach has been refined into an ethos that underpins all Forest School activity and a set of core principles that clearly identify the Forest School model and what it has to offer. This ethos and approach are laid out in the following document (pdf).

Forest School was initially developed mainly with early years groups, but over time has been enjoyed by groups of all ages. The Forest of Avon Trust has successfully used it with both children and adults – with a strong focus on working with adults with learning disabilities.

The relevance of Forest school today is stronger than ever, with a growing field of evidence exploring the benefits and increased awareness of the damage being done to children through lack of outdoor activity in natural settings.  The technological and virtual development of our lives is forging a new disconnect between people and experiences in nature which in turn is causing parents and educators to push for more Forest School experiences for their children.