Forest Schools: Offering A Fresh Approach To Learning

Picture of Calum


International Primary Teacher and Outdoor Learning Specialist, with over ten years experience. I hold an MSc in Outdoor Education and PGDE in Primary Education.

I am currently completing a portfolio of work to gain my Forest School Leader 3 qualification. Recently, I was lucky enough to participate in Forest School Practical Training with the outdoors group, which has a forest schools training centre based in Exmouth. The week-long course was a wonderful experience. I learned the practical skills needed to become a Forest School leader and the knowledge needed to deliver a Forest Schools programme. If you can do this qualification, I would highly recommend this company. The instructors were excellent and the support I have received as I work on my portfolio has been fantastic.

To gain a Forest School leader qualification, you are required to complete practical training and submit a portfolio that includes evidence of practical skills, knowledge of theory and evidence of delivering forest school sessions. Please see this link for an explanation of what is required: Forest School Leader 3

Forest schools have become an important part of the Outdoor Learning provision for primary schools in the UK. I believe they’ll become more important in international school settings in the future, as many international schools are now setting up forest schools in their backyards.

This blog reviews the literature on forest schools, including their founding ethos, benefits and future areas of development.


Learning how to teach safe campfire management.


About Forest Schools

Forest kindergartens were developed in Scandinavia as early as the 1950s and are essential to today’s Scandinavian education culture (Waite et al., 2015). In the UK, outdoor education within schools was primarily facilitated through yearly residential experiences. The scouting and cub movement also offered extracurricular outdoor education experiences for children, and these were the leading organisations offering bushcraft and environmental learning skills. In contrast, Scandinavian countries had a focus on the development of the holistic child. Because Scandinavian countries placed a high value on outdoor education, it was integrated into the school system (Higgins, 2002). Students from Bridge Water College saw the benefits of the forest kindergartens first-hand after a trip to Denmark in 1995. They initially developed the concept in the UK as part of the early years education provision. It has since spread throughout the UK and now offers experiences for children through primary and secondary education, as well as for adult groups.

Some Forest Schools are privately run, while local authority initiatives fund others. Forest Schools operate a play-based and child-led outdoor learning program in natural environments (Knight, 2009). These programs aim to provide children with safe, natural spaces to learn, develop and build connections with nature (Forest Schools Association, n.d.). The sessions are structured into half-day blocks and are often facilitated by educational practitioners with extra qualifications to lead sessions (Waite et al., 2015).


Learning to tie knots is excellent for developing fine motor skills.


Benefits of Forest Schools

Encouraging Physical Development

The environment on its own aids the student’s physical development during sessions. The uneven, variable terrain in a Forest School environment helps to develop the students’ balance and physical fitness (Fjortoft, 2004). This, combined with well-planned activities, encourages the development of fine and gross motor skills and helps an individual’s physical development and well-being (Blackwell, 2015). This can lead to the children maintaining practices that lead to better physical health into adulthood. A report by the Forestry Commission concluded that Forest schools may contribute to the public health agenda, as participants benefit from the significant amounts of physical activity they engage in during sessions (Lovell, 2009). Harris (2017) states that less structure and formality allows for more physical mobility.

Forest School activities, such as using tools, free play and construction projects, require fine and gross motor skills (MacEachern, 2013). Fjørtoft (2001) further highlights the importance of outdoor play in children’s motor skills development. Repeated experiences allow children to build on and develop their fine and gross motor skills over time (O’Brien, 2009). The Forest School Leader (FSL) challenges children during activities and further helps facilitate the development of their fine motor movements (Knight, 2013). During a forest school programme, the children will learn a variety of motor movements, such as carving and slicing with an axe. They will use these skills in different contexts, building adaptability as they learn to transfer physical skills to different situations (Knight, 2013). For example, one session may involve a student carving a spatula, and the next could involve the student using similar skills to prepare food. Through repeated use of skills, the students develop their motor skills and pride and confidence in their abilities (Knight, 2013).

Being in the forest allows students to connect emotionally with the lesson through touch and smell (Sami et al., 2016). Maria Montessori concluded that children learn through their senses first and then intellect (Pound, 2006). Montessori also highlighted that children at a young age primarily learn by using their hands. The freedom of child-led learning that forest schools offer also allows children to develop self-awareness. Spatial awareness and body function improve during forest school activities (Knight, 2013). Furthermore, engaging in physical activities in the forest enables children to become more aware of hazards in the future (Knight, 2013).

When completing any physical activity, it is beneficial for the FSL to allow the students to reflect afterwards; this will enable children to process their physical learning into intellectual knowledge (O’Brien, 2009). This can be done in several different ways. For example, a simple check and check-out facilitated reflection is effective. Asking open questions allows children to think about and discuss the skills they used and what they learned from the environment around them (Knight, 2013).


Enjoying the mindfulness of the carving activities.


Fostering Social and Emotional Development

Forest schools take a holistic approach to learning, as students improve their physical skills, knowledge, and social and emotional development, such as self-esteem, confidence, emotional intelligence, and resilience. Raising the confidence and self-esteem of the participating students is one of the founding principles of forest schools (Blackwell, 2015). This is achieved by creating a nurturing environment that allows students to learn skills, repeat tasks, and take pride and ownership over their activities (Harris, 2017).

Shelter building teaches students teamwork skills (Harris, 2017). Teamwork is an essential skill for creating strong communities within both school and work environments. The outdoors is a powerful medium for exploring the nature of the community. Temporary societies such as expedition groups and teams partaking in challenges can be seen as a microcosm of the wider community (Hopkins and Putnam, 1993). The bonding that takes place is evident within forest school communities. The space and the open-ended challenges and activities allow its participants greater freedom to interact with each other (Harris, 2017). Forest school activities reduce the formalities and social structures typical in schools, allowing participants to mix and build relationships with different people, and facilitating the development of emotional intelligence and empathy for others.


Building Resilience

Blackwell (2015) stated that ‘resilience is an acquired and adaptive process, which develops from the interaction between risks and challenge elements across different levels of an individual’s lived experience’ (p.14). Children’s development of adaptiveness is better attained through a self-initiated process offered by educational programs such as Forest Schools. In these programs, they develop social connectedness and a sense of how to operate and solve problems in a group, and these skills in turn, improve resilience. Team building activities allow individuals to get a good sense of themselves and how to best deal with and adapt to different personalities (Blackwell, 2015).

Forest schools also offer some students spiritual development experiences. This isn’t only about religious content but also through mindfulness and connecting with nature. Quay (2013) highlights the richness of learning in outdoor environments, stating that ‘through exposure to outdoor settings, individuals learn about their relationship with the natural environment and their relationship with others and their inner selves’ (p.143).


Learning new open-fire cooking techniques was super fun.


Encouraging Creativity and Independent Living

The Forest School environment allows students to develop skills that apply to many areas of their lives. For example, cooking, washing hands, learning about risk, and managing emotions are all widely valuable skills. The outdoor space offers an authentic context for learning these skills while being a fun, open environment (Beames and Brown, 2016). Learning comes to life and makes sense through content and process (Quay, 2013). The learner-led activities of Forest School don’t induce children to suppress creativity and imagination during activities, allowing children to explore, discover and learn (Harris, 2017). Child-led activities enable students to be creative and utilise their learning styles while allowing the leaders the space and time to observe, guide and help them with their learning (Knight, 2013).

We now live in a more risk-conscious age, and teachers’ attitudes towards outdoor learning can be rooted in their response to risk (Waite, 2010). Forest schools allow children to learn how to take risks (Harris, 2017). Giving participants opportunities to manage their own risk will provide them with greater confidence and teach them to make good choices in the future (Knight, 2013).


I discovered some simple but fun lesson ideas that I could use with my learners.


Future Areas of Development

Although I have highlighted many positive areas, the forest school programmes are relatively short-term, with six half-day sessions. In O’Brien’s (2009) study of the development benefits of Forest Schools, while some teachers within the study observed improvements in children’s development, they required more time to see if there was a long-term impact on their development when they returned to the classroom. Although the activities and skills that Forest Schools provide work very well within the context of the programme, it may be hard for schools to continue providing other similar opportunities for children to develop these skills further.

Leather (2018) suggested that there needs to be more significant research conducted into the validity of Forest Schools’ stated outcomes and whether the activities associated with Forest Schools are relevant to modern culture. O’Brien (2009) concluded that greater evaluation is needed on how the skills learned at forest schools integrate with school learning. I agree that further effort could be made to link classroom learning with the Forest School activities, and that the Forest School programmes will need to continue to stay relevant to modern living. However, on the other hand, I think that Forest Schools offer the children a unique experience, and the skills they learn will be enjoyable and offer something different. I wish these programmes were longer and offered more to make a more significant impact on children.


Examples of Forest Schools within My Current Context

Currently, in the Netherlands, Forest Schools are primarily conducted by larger international schools with access to woodland areas and outdoor spaces. Within the Hague, where I work, a forest school is facilitated by The British School in the Netherlands and has a trained teaching staff member. However, a privately owned Forest School was recently developed in Amsterdam, independent of international school organisations. It offers Forest School experiences to primary and secondary-age children, after-school and holiday forest school experiences, and teacher training. Please check out their website here theforestschool.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. Please feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss Forest Schools more.


Proudly, standing next to my team’s shelter.


Related Posts

What Is Outdoor Learning?

The Importance of Outdoor Play

Helping Childrens’ Wellbeing with Outdoor Learning


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Blackwell, S. (2015). Impacts of long-term forest school programmes on children’s resilience, confidence and wellbeing. Acesso em, 30(04), 1-46.

British School in the Netherlands (BSN). (2023, August 12). How Forest School is transforming the way children learn. Accessed: 10th August 2023 Available: How  Forest School is transforming the way children learn – BSN Voices (

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