Running forest learning

Written by: Alex Carter | Published:
Getting outdoors: Fairfield Preparatory School pupils have benefited from the school's forest learning ethos (Photo: Fairfield Preparatory School)

Pupils at Fairfield Preparatory School are taking their learning outside thanks to an initiative that is revolutionising the school day. Forest school leader Alex Carter explains

"Forest learning" was coined in the early 20th century, by HL Russell at the University of Wisconsin in America. By the 1950s, Russell's concept of taking lessons outside of the classroom had been embraced by education institutions across Northern Europe, where it has since become embedded in the early years learning of a number of countries, most notably Denmark and Sweden.

This approach to teaching struck me as a really exciting way to engage children, in part inspired by my experiences as a qualified mountain leader. I have seen first-hand how much children learn from expeditions abroad, and whether it is trekking, climbing or environmental protection, it is a learning style worth investing in as environmental awareness and sustainability becomes more important for our future generations.

Taking pupils out of the classroom at such a young age ensures environmentally conscious attitudes become the "norm", rather than an after-thought.

We have set up the forest school at Fairfield Preparatory School to be an inspiring and invigorating space for children to consolidate and expand knowledge on curriculum-based topics learned in the classroom.

I have seen numerous innovative initiatives during my 15 years as a teacher, but more than any others I believe forest learning is a learning style worth investing in. Though most schools now provide some kind of outdoor learning in line with the national curriculum, we take this approach a step further by investing in our staff with Level 3 qualifications and extending the activities on offer, for example by including things like a fire pit.

When used correctly by a qualified forest leader, supervised fire pits teach children about fire safety, hygiene and cooking – and they work particularly well with a hot drink and a biscuit!

We have seen how our pupils have developed their personal, social, and emotional wellbeing through outdoor learning. The activities we offer nurture a real variety of life-skills, including an awareness of personal risk, freedom, stress-management, confidence-building, independence and increased creativity. Forest learning has had a fantastic impact on our pupils' ability to learn and retain information through practical experiences.

Of course, not all children have the freedom to explore the natural world outside of school hours, so we have found that "teaching without walls" gives all pupils a great opportunity to have a go at a range of different activities. Whether it is building dens, going on a nature hunt or bird-watching, I have used the forest school to inspire pupils of all ages through fun, hands-on learning in a woodland environment, just like the early innovators of the forest learning ethos.

Children readily engage in the motivating, achievable tasks and activities that we deliver, helping them on a journey of self-discovery, improving communication, raising self-esteem and helping them to learn to work in a team – there are no winners and losers here.

For example, at a recent session called Pirates, year 1 pupils investigated floating and sinking, by testing materials safely in a shallow stream. Every child was encouraged to talk, test and self-manage their own risk, while learning as they went, and of course having fun.

After the first half of all forest learning sessions, children are free to play and explore under the watchful eye of the forest leader. At Fairfield, we are lucky enough to have lots for the youngsters to explore, from a mud-kitchen, an archaeological dig site, a musical area, rope swing, trees to climb, a lifeboat, maths den, and a writing area. It doesn't matter if they get dirty – it is a chance to let off some steam and learn safely through their own self-initiated channels.

No new scheme is without its challenges, and bringing this learning style to Fairfield did pose a number of obstacles. The biggest challenge is keeping momentum going – it is easy to have a number of ideas and resources when you first start, but it is a task for the most imaginative of us to keep thinking of new ways to use resources from our natural world to support learning in the school curriculum, as well as adhering to the forest school ethos of flexible, child-initiated learning.

Another challenge is to ensure all subjects are adequately covered by forest learning. For example – biology or art might inspire a number of activities straight away, but something like maths might need more thought. For example, our year 1 classes have used forest learning to consolidate measuring in maths, by measuring the circumference of trees in groups.

It means they have to work together as a team, while finding out more about our outdoor world and, of course, backing up what they have learned in the classroom about measurement and numbers.

Getting parents on board early is crucial to the success of forest learning. We have had positive feedback. Before we launched, we held a parents' information evening to showcase the benefits of the concept.
The good thing about forest learning is that it is flexible enough for any school to interpret in their own way.

The ethos can be incorporated with any budget or site, just as long as you have a teacher who is genuinely passionate about the outdoors. This helps particularly when the weather is not quite so enchanting!
If a school hasn't got the capacity for a designated forest learning area, there is no reason why a simpler version of the learning style cannot be applied using a playing field, a plant-a-tree scheme, or a vegetable patch.

Since we launched the facility, our forest school has been widely heralded as a success. We receive a high number of positive comments from parents who have noticed improvements in their children's behaviour and self-esteem, and staff have commented on the improved concentration in the classroom.

Once pupils step outside the conventional indoor classroom, you immediately see a different side to them as their imagination and creativity really begin to flow freely. Such is their enthusiasm for their new-found passion for the outdoors, they often get their parents involved when they get home. Besides coercing their family into gathering natural materials to take to school, our pupils often enjoy playing teacher to their mums and dads, eager to share their experience and knowledge.

Particularly as we head into the warmer months, I would encourage all schools wanting to embrace an "outside the box" learning style to consider forest learning in some capacity. Though it is quite an intense investment of time, resources and imagination, Fairfield's forest school has more than exceeded our expectations, and pupils are already benefiting from the change of scenery that outdoor learning provides.

  • Alex Carter is forest school leader at Fairfield Preparatory School in Loughborough, Leicestershire.

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