The name is a well known one, Forest School…

In some people’s minds it has become concurrent with any sort of outdoor learning done within a woodland setting. Or for some I have met, it simply means more general outdoor learning….

tree imps

True Forest School is…

Children direct their learning at Forest School

Forest School provides quality opportunities for play.

It allows learners the time and space to develop their own interests, skills, and understanding through practical, hands-on experiences.

True Forest school is a process, something that happens over a period of time. Through regular sessions in the outdoor world.

“At a forest school, children have the freedom to explore, play, build, create, imagine, and use their senses to experience the outdoor environment and engage with one another. The sessions are carefully planned, led by trained forest school practitioners and take place outside the classroom in all weathers in local forests, creeks, meadows, mountains or shorelines.  In the sessions, children can sing around the fire, learn to use and make tools, build dens, dig in the mud, identify bugs with magnifying glasses or retreat to the tent for reading and puzzles.”

“By participating in engaging, motivating and achievable tasks and activities in a woodland environment each participant has an opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation, balanced emotional and social skills. These, through self awareness, can be developed to help reach personal potential.”

The Novak Djokovic Foundation, Website Feb 2021.

The role of the Forest School Leader is…

The primary role of a Forest School leader is to reconnect children with nature and the natural world. To provide a free space in which to scaffold children’s learning.  The FS leader therefore needs many skills:

Knowledge and Understanding:

 The FS leader needs to have a good knowledge and understanding of the natural world. This allows them to be able impart that knowledge to their children. This also helps to keep them and the site safe through the risk assessments. For example, knowing what flora and fauna you have onsite. Which are potentially toxic, e.g. Giant Hogweed. Which need to be protected. For example, a small area of bluebells you may have each spring, which do not respond well to trampling.  

The FS Leader needs to also have a good knowledge and understanding of the theoretical basis behind the activities and learning they are presenting.  Through having an understanding of holistic learning; self esteem, and methods of raising self esteem in children, emotional intelligence and methods of promoting emotional intelligence. Such as providing opportunities for the child to be physical thus releasing the build up of stress they feel. 

The FS leader must understand personal and social skills. In order that they are able to promote the development of social skills. For example turn taking through the range of offered activities. Independence skills, like dressing when kitting out for a FS session or cooking and washing.  The FS leader should have a theoretical knowledge of learning and development. This includes cognition, attention spans, speech and language. this in turn allows them to develop sessions which promote these areas of development. 


A FS Leader should be creative in many ways.  Creative in their session planning to allow for plenty of opportunities for the children to develop their connections to the natural world. Also creative themselves, making tools, woodworking toys and tools for the children to use to enhance their experiences.  Finally, creative in activity planning. Allowing the children to develop their creativity skills in nature, by making beads, wood cookies, tools etc.


A FS leader should have a love of being outdoors in nature, walking, climbing, running, working whichever is their want.  They also need to have an understanding of the physical needs of the children. For example, through understanding Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Also understanding how children’s physical development works to plan sessions appropriate to further their skills at an appropriate level. For example introducing the climbing tree or the rope swing to the correct client age group.

Facilitating learning, Observing, Scaffolding and Flexibility:

The Forest School Leader acts as a facilitator, creating sessions, which allow the clients to control and direct their own learning within a safe environment.  The FS leader provides the opportunities for the clients to develop their skills holistically in the natural setting of the woodland. 

A FS leader should observe the children experiencing the sessions. Inserting themselves only when necessary to support, scaffold and promote children’s learning and development.  They should hold the space. Scaffold children’s learning to allow children to direct their own learning and take ownership of it. They may do this by learning and trying things themselves. The FS leader provides the opportunities and the tools for them to do so. The FS leader also needs the skills to teach the required skills. For example wood working or tool use. The FS leader must be flexible, allowing the children/learners to direct or steer the course of the session. So that if a point of interest should arise for further investigation, the children are free to follow it and the FS leader prepared.


Finally, a Forest School Leader is a different role from that of a teacher. A FS leader may form more of a friend role for the children in their care. All the people in the FS space are equal.  As such the FS leader needs to have a good listening ear. Often children in their care find it more comfortable discussing successes and concerns with them. Thanks in part to the more relaxed, less formal setting in which Forest School takes place.

mud bathing

Historically, Forest School in the UK…

Pre 2000:

Since the urbanisation and industrialisation of the United Kingdom researchers and educators have increasingly looked into ways to encourage children to reconnect with the natural outdoor environment.  Our children in the UK start formal education far earlier than their peers in many European countries. 

In 1985, Scandinavian countries started to formalise their pre-school (pre 7 years old) outdoor education systems, as Nature Kindergartens. Looking at children from birth as lifelong learners.  This format for early years provision caught the attention of Bridgewater College early years educators. Meaning in 1993, some of their nursery nurses visited Denmark to see if this all weather, outdoor, child centred, play based methodology could be usefully replicated in the UK.  They returned inspired. These Nursery Nurses became the UK forerunners in the development of what has become known as Forest school. They developed a BTech qualification in Forest School.


Gordon Woodall at Burnsworthy College later expanded these education principles to encompass

  • disaffected pupils,
  • school leavers
  • those with a variety of learning needs in school environments,

This made FS truly for all ages and abilities.  In 2000, Gordon Woodall brought the Forest school training to Wales. In 2001 SNPT was created and Forest School Wales was started to support practitioners.  Forest School Wales, Forestry Commission Wales (FCW) and the Forest Education Initiative (FEI) have all been instrumental in the development of Forest School in Wales. 

Forest School Spread and took hold in various local authorities in England. Leading to the development of the Open College Network qualification, by trainers across both England and Wales, in 2003.  In Wales this became the Agored Cymru qualification in 2010.

Coed Y Foel

In 2002 a network of practitioners held the first National conference. This helped to define some of the key features of a UK Forest school and the definition of a Forest School. 

“Forest School is a child centred inspirational learning process, that offers opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. It is a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self esteem through learner inspired, hands on experiences in a natural setting.”

FSA website, Feb 2021

In 2005, in Wales, a training network was established, because there were high numbers of trainees. Additionally, through the FEI, cluster Groups were established locally.  The FEI then becomes Outdoor Learning Wales, which now receives its funding and support from Natural Resources Wales.

In 2008 a special interest group for Forest Schools was developed (FSSIG) which established a system of AGMs.    

The Forest school Quality Improvement Framework was started in 2009. This allowed practitioners to self-assess the quality of their own Forest School Provision.  In 2010, a steering group was established to look at setting up a National Governing body for Forest School. 

2011 and beyond:

In 2011, the definition and principles were reviewed, developed and consulted on. This culminated in the creation in 2012 of the Forest School Association.

Increasingly the Forest School movement has gained support from the Wildlife Trusts, the Forestry Commission and other household names. However, with many schools increasingly putting staff through a Forest School Leaders course and then calling themselves a Forest school, but limiting the amount of time children can spend in the actual woods. In some cases to once a term or the like! There is a very real risk of losing the true benefits of Forest School into this watered down version. As previously stated, true Forest school is a process and children need regular lengthy periods of time immersed in nature to reap the full benefits.

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