Forest School originated in Scandinavia in the 1950s as a way to teach children about nature and the natural world. It wasn’t until 1995 that a group of Nursing Nurses from Bridgwater College in Somerset who were visiting Denmark brought the idea to the UK. Teachers at the college saw the potential for Forest School as an educational tool. And before long Forest Schools all over the UK were popping up like saplings. After all, as educators don’t we have a professional obligation to keep an open mind to how children in our care learn, and to adopt an inclusive approach to education, from early years and beyond. This article outlines the benefits of Forest School in a preschool setting.
“If the child is not learning the way you are teaching, then you must teach in the way the child learns.”
Dr Rita Dunn
Teaching in a way that engages children at their level, with their interests, is paramount if as an educator you’re truly going to connect with that child. And if you can connect with a child then it’s more likely that what you teach them will stick, so they’ll learn in a way that makes those teachings meaningful. Connections that are not only at an emotional level but also a physical one. Neuroscience presents us with strong evidence for the profound influence of the kind of experiences a child would encounter at their nursery. Because to build healthy brain connections from an early age, young children need responsive and rich social interactions with their caregivers and those supporting them, combined with the right nutrients and a healthy environment (Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University 2016).
Furthermore, there are other benefits of learning through rich and diverse educational experiences for children. As children engage in experiential activities, such as the type typically practised during Forest School, for example:
- Measuring leaves
- Discovering what lives in the soil
- Learning the different parts of a plant
- Climbing and exploring
- Creating objects from leaves, sticks and pebbles
- Using simple tools
- Building a ‘hotel’ for hedgehogs or insects
On the surface these activities might not seem particularly taxing, but think of them in the context of preschool children stretching themselves and testing their limits, in a safe supervised environment away from the ‘norm’ of the indoors. The outcomes are impressive. In fact, in the second phase of an evaluation carried out in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire in 2005 by NEF (New Economics Foundation) 24 children were tracked over an 8 month period as they attended Forest School. The evaluation concluded that there was a direct connection between Forest School activities done in a specific environment and six positive outcomes for the children carrying out those activities over time, which were:
- Confidence – giving the children the freedom to learn, grow and demonstrate independence
- Social skills – children demonstrated increased awareness of the consequences of their actions, and developed the ability to work cooperatively with others
- Language and communication – children developed more sophisticated spoken language prompted by their visual and sensory Forest School experiences
- Motivation and concentration – new keenness to engage in exploratory learning and play, plus improved ability to focus on specific tasks for extended periods
- Physical skills – development of physical stamina and gross motor skills
- Knowledge and understanding – increased respect for the environment and interest in natural surroundings, ability to start identifying flora and fauna
However, these developments in the children’s education had an impact beyond the children themselves. Those leading the Forest School activities got a new perspective and understanding of individual learning styles for individual children. This additional information can be used to cross-pollinate with indoor learning techniques where appropriate. Plus, the parents started to notice changes in their children, like asking to go outside to play more and being more physically active, which is a wonderfully healthy counter to the world of screens we tend to find ourselves in today.
So, hopefully you can see that the benefits of Forest School on children, their communities, and the environment are multifaceted and subtle. But no less impactful, and because of this we at Single Steps Nurseries believe that Forest School has a really important educational role to play in preschool, as such it’s not a ‘nice to have’ and much more of a ‘must have’ for a richer more complete educational experience.