Around 30 years ago, The Forest School movement was introduced to the UK via Scandinavia, a place where a passion for nature and the great outdoors is a deep-seated part of the culture. Now, Forest Schools are experiencing a revival in the UK.
According to a 2021 survey by the Forest School Association (FSA) that includes 200 UK schools, as many as two-thirds have noted an increase in demand for Forest School places since the beginnings of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Some have even reported that they are completely booked for the foreseeable future.
This surge in popularity is often attributed to Covid safety measures and the growing awareness of mental health and the benefits that being outdoors for our overall wellbeing. Another likely reason is that parents feel “empowered” by homeschooling, and hope that using Forest Schools will help improve upon the traditional curriculum.
“Having children at home during the periods of lockdown will have been quite demanding for many parents and children,” says FSA chief executive Gareth Wyn Davies. “[Parents] may have thought about alternative ways of educating their children, and they may well have had the opportunity to take their children outdoors more during that period, spent time with them outdoors, and gained an appreciation for that experience.
The Forest School experience isn’t meant to completely replace traditional learning, but rather complement it. Usually, activities (like bushcraft, mud play, den building, and games of hide and seek) take place in woodlands or in other natural environments which are viewed as more Covid-friendly than the typical classroom that is confined indoors.
Plus, allowing children the joy of socializing outside gives them the opportunity to communicate with peers in a safe outdoor environment and can help them refresh their social skills with face-to-face play.
Thanks to the effects of the pandemic, mainstream educators are also realizing the many benefits of forest school sessions, too, however it will take some more time before the forest school experience becomes standard.
“Schools want to give [forest sessions] to all of the children, but money, time, and the pressures of the curriculum prevent that from happening,” explains Wyn Davies. “They tend to offer smaller blocks of this outdoor experience to all children, which is great. But a forest school is a much longer-term thing.”
“My preference would be for children going out once a week or at least a fortnight to have that engagement with nature,” he adds, “because the evidence seems to show it has a very positive effect on their academic life when they come back in.”