Forest school takes children’s learning out of the classroom and into the natural environment. Could this approach encourage children to think consciously about their impact on the world around them, and change their behaviour towards the environment?

Forest schools began to emerge in the UK in the 1990s, inspired by Scandinavian outdoor pedagogy developed in the 1950s. There are now over 100 certified forest schools in the UK and thousands around the world. Forest school is a specific programme designed to support development and learning in the natural environment through a learner-centred approach. Although pupils may range in age from 3 to 18, forest school is most common in pre-school and primary settings. Forest school leaders and staff members in the UK are required to hold certain formal qualifications, and training centres regularly evaluate their practices.

The promise of forest school

Learning at forest school is play-focused. Activities include building dens, practice in using tools, free exploration of the environment, and learning about nature and biodiversity. The hope is that these activities will develop children’s knowledge of and relationship to the natural world, as well as their social and co-operation skills – all outside of the traditional, formal learning environment.

“Learning at forest school is play-focused.”

While some studies have looked at the impact of forest school, these studies have not carried out large-scale, quantitative assessments; instead, they have generally collected qualitative data on the experiences of parents, teachers, and children. In one study, forest school practitioners reported that children showed greater connection with and care for the environment after spending time learning in nature, and they engaged in more positive environmental behaviours. In another case study, a small group of children reported improved emotional wellbeing and social skills after three years participating in forest school. While these are promising findings, quantitative evaluation is needed to establish how forest school might support such positive outcomes from early childhood through adolescence.

Several studies have focused more broadly on children learning in natural settings, outside the context of forest school. In one study, children who felt more connected to nature had more pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours. A review of 83 articles suggests that engaging with nature improves physical, emotional, and social development in 3- to 18-year-olds, as well as perceptions of nature and environmental attitudes. Again, these studies rely on qualitative reports.

More evidence is needed, and forest school must become more accessible

Why might engaging in nature influence children’s social development and wellbeing? Perhaps children have more agency – more choice and control – in forest school than in the typical classroom, which is more structured. The learning environment in forest school is co-created by children and their teachers and extends beyond the physical boundaries of the classroom and the pedagogical boundaries of the national curriculum. In forest school, children are able to follow what interests them, which may be more conducive to learning.    

It is also possible that any advantages of forest school simply reflect the advantages of the participating children and schools. Schools that are able to support forest school have access to outdoor space and resources, while others, such as many inner-city schools, may not. As forest school is rarely part of the mainstream curriculum, less-resourced schools may be unable to afford a forest school programme. Thus the reported benefits may not in fact be attributable to forest school itself.

“Forest school could offer a unique opportunity to engage young people in sustainable practices and pro-environment behaviour.”

To assess the true impact of forest schools on learning and development, it is crucial to look at the long-term outcomes of a diverse sample of children. If a large-scale assessment generates robust evidence of the positive impacts of forest school, it might encourage policymakers and stakeholders to bring the principles and activities of forest school to more children.

Forest school could offer a unique opportunity to engage young people in sustainable practices and pro-environment behaviour. The initial evidence is promising, suggesting that forest school improves social skills and wellbeing, as well as attitudes towards the environment. Further research is required to establish the impact on a larger scale, and to find ways to provide more equitable access to forest school programmes. Ultimately, forest school practices might provide an opportunity to change the attitudes and behaviours of the next generation and instigate real societal change.

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