Forest School: Ethos & History

Forest School has been developing throughout Wales since 1999, based on a Danish model adapted by Bridgwater College. The first leadership training was held in Wales in July 2000 and since then the rise of Forest School has been meteoric such that provision in Wales is a template for Forest School development in the UK.

The Forest School ethos resonates with important themes in the history of Western European educational theory since the 18th century: Rousseau, Froebel, Montessori and McMillan have all advocated the benefits of learning in the natural environment and insisted that children need to play, to experience space and movement and sensory stimulation for healthy development. The Forest School experience promotes sensory child-led outdoor play, encouraging and stimulating curiosity and absorption.

The long tradition of craftwork in European education is also central to Forest School. Children learn to use real small hand tools, exploring the use of natural materials with the benefit of generations of traditional craftskills handed down to support them. They learn to assess risk, take on challenges and accept responsibility. The teacher/pupil relationship is fundamentally different in Forest School. The child leads the way. There is no curriculum. The woodland environment allows this and Forest School suits a broad range of age and ability.

Forest School originated in Scandinavia where children are not formally educated until they are seven. Until then they learn through play. The forests are accessible and nature is part of everyday experience. Pedagogy in Scandinavia regards formal education as only part of the experience of a developing child in the context of his/her ecosystem. They regard the environment as a teacher, and play as the child’s natural medium for expression. Their attitude towards risk is positive. Our culture’s obsession with health & safety is regarded with bemusement.

Forest School Wales, Forestry Commission Wales (FCW) and the Forest Education Initiative (FEI) have all been key players in the development of Forest School in Wales, including working with decision makers to raise the profile of FS. Because Forest School is on the cutting edge of modern educational debate, it proves to be popular as a framework for institutions and organisations and has many claims made over it and for it, some of them contradictory.

Forest School Wales is working hard to encourage and support a wide range of Forest School practitioners from different backgrounds, such as playworkers, craftspeople, storytellers, musicians, movement therapists, and those who are specially trained to provide support and enable children and young people with a broad spectrum of needs.

Many forest schools, especially in North Wales, are members of their local FEI cluster group and have received funding, advice and support via this network. FEI / FCW are also supporting the development of FS Leader training, including the current WAG Foundation Phase trainer Project. The Foundation Phase in Wales is a notable advocate of Forest School and gradually more early years practitioners are being trained as Forest School leaders. This creates wonderful opportunities for children in Wales to have the experience of playing in our beautiful woodlands and forests during school time, and Forestry Commission Wales has been an imaginative and supportive partner in this process.

There are now forest school projects in all counties in Wales, working with a range of client groups: Early Years education, alternative curriculum, special needs, transition; and a range of settings: some in school grounds, some in a local woodland. People training as Forest School leaders come from a range of backgrounds: teachers, youth workers, play workers, woodland owners and managers, environmentalists and education officers of nature and countryside organisations.