The Forest School movement has its roots in Scandinavia, where it began life with infants and young children. When it came to Britain it was on the back of research that demonstrated the benefits for younger children particularly those in early years. Since then, its growth has remained strongest with Early Years, where the benefits have been researched in terms of well-being outcomes, general confidence, fine and gross motor skill development and so-on. It is with infants that the movement has grown and with infants that the Forest Schools strategies were initially developed.
Comparatively less work has gone into developing Forest School for teenagers. The pressures of the curriculum at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 and those all important exam results means that secondary schools are inclined to reserve Forest School for students who do not thrive in the classroom. Limited funds means that the money for the additional staff needed for Forest School can only be found from funding ‘pots’, such as the ‘pupil premium’ which follows students who have been identified as disadvantaged.
The natural progression for children who have long exposure to Forest School would seem to be towards specialisation in craft skills and by linking outdoor activities more closely to the National Curriculum. This is the work with which we are currently engaged.
Along the way we have encountered some resistance to this approach, with experienced Forest School Leaders arguing that flexibility, child-centred approaches and focus on connection with and enjoyment of natural environments is what Forest School is all about. For children with significant behavioural issues it provides respite from the classroom, where they often fail to thrive. Why make it hard for them in the big outdoors too?
The answer is severalfold. Firstly, young people of all abilities need challenge. Only by pushing themselves do they get that all-important sense of achievement. With a sense of achievement comes pride and motivation to do even better. Completing challenging tasks builds confidence, and improves problem-solving skills and analytical skills. If the task can be related to the National Curriculum and the relevant skill-sets, so much the better.
The problem for many Forest School Leaders is the time and opportunity to gain relevant training to move their skills forward. The Forest School Leader Level 3 qualification is only a beginning, where the educational theory of the typical course tends to focus on younger children (learning styles, development of fine and gross motor skills, play schemas etc..). There are many courses out there – green furniture making, for example – but are ‘rural craft skills’ the same as Forest School? What does the student gain from learning to make furniture with unseasoned timber, using pole lathes and shave-horses?
We are currently working on linking Forest School with Enterprise, and also looking at ways in which Forest School activities can contribute to different forms of existing accreditation. It has potential for careers education and a substantial range of vocational opportunities – from Forestry to Horticulture, to Outdoor linked Leisure and Tourism and so on. There is a need for training that addresses this precise issue of the role of Forest School at Key Stage 3 and 4 so that Forest School practitioners who deliver to this age group can make the wide ranging benefits to students transparent to all.
Thereafter, the teacher working with older children may feel the need to develop their own craft skills only to discover they often involve the use of expensive and often lethal looking tools, where confidence and competence becomes a major issue. And craft skills (wood carving, furniture making, structure building with natural materials etc..) is only part of the picture. Training is also needed in enabling the student to engage in the whole design and materials analysis process that brings in the Maths, the Science, the Literacy and all the other processes that amount to delivering the National Curriculum into the workplace.
We hope to be reporting very soon on a new project that will have just such an application, this time involving the building of a full-scale classroom involving natural and reclaimed materials. Once again, this project is being funded by the Awards for All Heritage Lottery Fund.
All this takes time! We hope you will continue to visit our site and we welcome comments and information on what is happening elsewhere with Forest School and teens!