Most teachers and leaders now recognise the immense benefits of taking learning outside. However, many people are often confused about which route or professional development course to take. I often come across many who say, I’d like to ‘teach’ forest school but we only have a playing field. Or, we don’t have time on our curriculum for Outdoor Learning as we have so many objectives we have to cover anyway. Some schools even say, we are a ‘Forest School’ and some establishments claim to run it without having the appropriately qualified staff. The rise of the Forest School practise in the past ten years has been tremendous; many children are now given the opportunity to explore woodlands on a regular basis across the UK. However, I’ve noticed a confusion abut what Forest School actually is, and how it both differs, and is related to, Outdoor Learning.
Firstly, Outdoor Learning involves any learning opportunity that takes place outdoors. It can involve outdoor adventure activities, environmental education, field studies, Forest School or any session that is taught outside. More recently, schools have opted to take lessons outside to take advantage of the huge proven benefits in health and well-being; to increase pupil motivation and inspiration; to connect learning to real life examples; and to increase pupil awareness of their environment. This has become known as Outdoor Learning in schools and so may be the type of outdoor learning most teachers are aware of. Most national curriculum objectives can be taught outside. Some, naturally are more suited to inside a classroom, but many subjects and topics can utilise the outdoors to great effects and allow a higher degree of thinking skills and experiential learning. Outdoor learning is not an extra subject, it is a new way of approaching the way we teach; covering the same topics and objectives but outdoors. This outdoor learning environment can vary from a concrete playground, school field, park, woodland, or mountain: literally anywhere outdoors which provides more stimulus and opportunity for consolidating and extended learning and understanding. Outdoor learning sessions can divert and progress according to pupils’ interests, but usually start with a set objective to be learnt. Anyone can run outdoor learning sessions, however, to be sure to do this effectively, safely and sustainably, various levels of Outdoor Learning Awards have now been established, (such as a Level 1 Award in Outdoor Learning, or a Level 2 Outdoor Learning Practitioner Award) which are accredited to the individual with the knowledge, not the establishment.
In contrast, Forest School is not a subject, topic or ‘thing;’ it is essentially an ethos and method of increasing confidence and self-esteem through facilitating largely child-led hands-on experiences in a local woodland environment. Forest school is largely play-based and open-ended. Sessions are paved by the children’s interests and actions. There may be a loose theme or set-activities to choose from involving largely natural resources, e.g. tool work and fire pit activities, but these are provided on a choice basis and are very flexible. To run Forest School practises, a leader has to be a minimum of level 3 accredited qualification, which generally involves initial training, around a year of studying the ethos and gaining practical skills and knowledge, completing a portfolio of study, and finally an assessment. Therefore, all level 3 leaders should have a good grasp of the concept behind the method of learning. Assistants with a Forest School Level 2 qualification are considered competent to assist a Level 3 leader, not to lead sessions on their own. As like Outdoor Learning Awards, It is the individual who holds the leader accreditation, not the school. Therefore, if a school’s Level 3 leader leaves, an alternative member of staff will need to hold an accredited Level 3 qualification before they can continue to run ‘Forest School’ sessions. A person training others to be Forest School Leaders or Assistants, (or indeed for various Outdoor Learning Awards mentioned above) must hold an accredited Level 4 Forest School Trainer qualification.
The Forest School Association states that Forest School practise involves the following requirements:
- Long-term process of regular sessions, rather than a one-off or infrequent visits; the cycle of planning, observation, adaptation and review links each session.
- Takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
- Uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for being, development and learning.
- Aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
- Offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
- Run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.
An example of both approaches based around a topic on ‘Pirates’ is explained below:
- During an Outdoor Learning session, a teacher/ leader may set up a controlled activity in a shallow pond or stream, investigating which materials float or sink, in order to work out the best material to use for a pirate ship. Children would be made aware of the session objective, ‘Which materials sink and which float?’ at the start of the session, and be encouraged to test their ideas and question their findings whilst thinking about safety aspects. By theming the session around a pirate ship and allowing experiential learning in a stream outside, children are naturally more motivated to learn and can transfer additional skills they have utilised during this outdoors activity to other areas or learning.
- In contrast, Forest School would have no ‘set’ objective so you could have a loose pirate theme, but activities would stem from the children’s initiatives and interests. The children may decide to make pirate ships in their shallow stream and then make observations about which materials sink or float, however learning in this way would be child-initiated, with open questions from the adults. The children, however, may not initiate or choose this activity and so may take the learning in a completely different direction, e.g. hunting for pirate treasure or building a pirate camp from natural materials. Adults would respond to the child’s actions and interests by encouraging them to come up with their own solutions to any potential hazards, or to facilitate opportunities for experiential learning through providing prompts or open questions.
Both Outdoor Learning and Forest School recognise the need to monitor the ecological impacts they have on the environment and how the area can be used sustainably. They also both cover risk-benefit analysis and both allow children to develop self-management of their own risks in a controlled way. They both aim to provide holistic benefits to develop the ‘whole child’ and to re-connect children with their local environment and nature.
A school, if they feel competent enough, may wish to implement their own version of Outdoor Learning which suits their needs and staff qualifications, and may choose to call this a name of their own, (you should not term it ‘Forest School’ as such if you do not hold a Forest School Level 3 qualification). It is, in these circumstances, the responsibility of the school to ensure that the staff have the necessary skills, knowledge, first aid, insurance and programme of study to ensure all leaders are competent and safety standards are adhered to. Unfortunately, not all people have the same standards, which is why certified and levelled courses were first introduced. In my opinion, certified courses in Outdoor Learning or Forest School are the best option as they train leaders to a set standard and competent level of safety and knowledge. They also equip candidates with a firm grasp of how to implement a successful programme of study for Outdoor Learning/ Forest School in their establishment to ensure the best possible provision for their students.
So, which path should you choose? It largely depends on your previous outdoor experience and knowledge, your pupils’ needs, and which approach you and your establishment wish to take. Yes this can be influenced by your setting and facilities, however, most schools have appropriate pieces of land which they can use less than a ten minute walk from their setting. One may wish to start with the Level 2 Outdoor Learning Practitioner Award and then progress onto the Level 3 Forest School Leader Award. Once you have a firm grasp of each concept, why not provide both types of outdoor learning and take advantage of the benefits of each?
Outdoor Learning Made Easy is running courses for both Outdoor Learning Practitioner and Forest School Leader this May. Visit www.outdoorlearningmadeeasy.co.uk/consultancy-advice/ to book or for more information.
Outdoor Learning Made Easy also provide thousands of resources and guidance documents to enable you to run effective outdoor learning of all styles with confidence and excellence. Contact us for our latest offers and deals on subscription prices: firstname.lastname@example.org