Why should I bother with Forest Schools?

Debbie Fryer tells us why the Forest School concept, which originated in Scandinavia, makes children happy, healthy, wealthy and wise….

You’ve heard it – and perhaps even said it yourself: When I was young, we played outside, climbed trees and spent the day cycling and picking blackberries and we were really happy and healthy. But is that just nostalgia or is there something in it?

Many children in the UK don’t have the opportunity to try any of these outdoor activities. But the Scandinavians, who have been working in Forest Schools since the 50s, have proved that all of this does indeed make children healthier, less stressed and more self-reliant. It also gives children better social skills and provides a solid foundation for academic improvement.

When we opened our Forest School, the ‘Enchanted Woodland’ in Dartford, children from three local primary schools each attended for one day a week over ten weeks. The results went far beyond our expectations and confirmed, to the children, to ourselves and to the schools, that outdoor learning, in easy-to-manage bites, inspires children far more than the best work in their classrooms ever could.

A day in a Forest School

Forest School positively encourages exploration of the world about us and whatever the activity there’s always a lesson to be learned. Children really enjoy working in our forest ‘kitchen’, concocting dyes made from natural ingredients found in the woods – such as purple from hawthorn and elderberries – and using them to create pictures. The resulting artwork, made with soggy leaves, sprinkled with a fixative of ground-seasoned wood, would make any art teacher proud.

Children love a challenge. And using a compass becomes more practical when you need it to find your way to the toilet: 50 strides north and 100 west. Measuring the trunk of the oldest tree in the woods can be done with a piece of knotted rope: each knot denotes 50 years. And all the while, children see tiny saplings and marvel at the size of horse chestnuts.

Almost without realising they use their skills in maths and science, learning about the natural life cycle and applying that to their own families. From understanding grows respect – no longer will they tread and trample a baby tree; the conker that has rooted will be carefully planted; and ‘dirt’ is revealed as more than just grime – it is our Earth’s provider, as necessary for trees as it is for ourselves.

Children learn about the history of the area, the history of Earth, see life cycles and seasons first-hand and learn to value bees, wasps, spiders and snails.

Proven results

With the emphasis on teamwork, levels of social communication, empathy and well-being soar. At the end of each session, children are assessed on communication, teamwork, empathy, risk assessment, well-being and their knowledge of the outdoor environment. Results are compiled into a report with comments from their teacher. So far, 300 children have followed the programme and we’ve had some extraordinary results: Level 4 across the board, with every child gaining. Full marks for Forest Schools!

Debbie Fryer is the Chief Executive of the Temple Hill Trust www.templehilltrust.org.uk.

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