Contemporary issues in Forest Schools

| December 1, 2012

Introduction

This report explains the philosophy behind ‘Forest Schools’ and why it has been introduced in England and its relevance to the Early Years National Curriculum.   It will outline the History and benefits of ‘Forest Schools’ in the Early Years; how it can address current crises in the U.K.; and explains the problems encountered in delivering the initiative.   It looks into the implementation of ‘Forest Schools’ locally, taking into consideration the necessity to change attitudes and the complications with logistics of putting this approach in place.

‘Forest School’ approach has not been a Government led initiative, although they do appreciate its benefits.   The Department of Health (DOH) and Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCFS) have realised ‘Forest Schools’ are a positive step towards the health and education of young children (Alexander and Hargreaves, 2007). The UK Parliament House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills, agreed with the principle of outside classroom education saying,

“we are convinced that out of classroom education enriches the curriculum and can improve educational attainment” (U.K. Parliament, 2004;  part 7, para. 1).

The Early Years Curriculum has seen many alterations in the last ten years to accommodate the changing requirements for educational settings.   The British educational culture is formal, lessons are planned and children assessed routinely.   As  the need for children to attend educational settings at an earlier age and pedagogy changes to keep in line with new research, the curriculum changes accordingly. The UK Government believes parents should return to work as soon as possible after Maternity Leave to help to eradicate child poverty and childrens’ learning would benefit from early intervention too.    Ball (2010 p, 49) states Surestart emerged as an early intervention to

“…give children… a good start…. in their learning and development… and combined with Child Tax Credits, is intended to enable more mothers to return to the workforce.

To allow mothers to return to work, Government felt it their responsibility to provide adequate provision for affordable, flexible childcare in Childcare Act 2006 and so the DCSF was set up in June, 2007.   Its role was to promote educational excellence, raise standards in education, reduce child poverty, re-engage disaffected children and to ensure integrated services.   The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) became statutory in September, 2008, it is central to the development and welfare of children  and also acknowledged the importance of outdoor learning (DfES, 2007).   This policy combined the ‘Curriculum for Guidance for the Foundation Stage’ (QCA/DfEE, 2000), ‘Birth to Three Matters Framework’ (DfES, 2002) and also ‘National Standards for Under Eight’s Day Care and Childminding’ (Sure Start, 2003). There has been much discussion questioning the approach to educating the under 7’s (Yelland, 2005).    The Cambridge Primary Review made 75 recommendations. (www.guardian.co.uk/education accessed 21.2.2011)   In comparison in other countries children do not start formal education as early as in the U.K.   In Primary Review interim report, 2008, it indicates that these countries reap social and emotional benefits, without any delays in education.

Over time children have become disconnected from nature according to  Richard Louv (2005). He identified this as ‘nature deficit disorder’.   An article in the Spring 2011 National Trust magazine states, “there is growing empirical evidence to show that exposure to nature brings substantial mental health benefits”. Policy makers, education services, health care providers, residential developers and organisations such as Natural England, British Mental Health Charity and the National Trust are beginning to realise there needs to be a deep cultural change to connect children back with nature.

In the 19th Century outdoor life was a normal part of a child’s life and this was where they learnt their skills for life and, therefore, they did not need the educational system for guidance.   However, industrialisation meant that families moved to urban areas to find work which resulted in children being separated from the countryside and fresh air. (Knight,2009)   Thence, mainly the middle and upper classes used the countryside and educationalists and health professionals began to notice the effects caused by the lack of outdoor space.

The MacMillan sisters founded outdoor nurseries to counteract this insisting quality time to play and fresh air were needed for healthy bodies and minds (Pugh and Duffey,2010).   Susan Isaacs started a nursery for privileged children, based around the outdoor environment.      Badon Powell initiated the Scout Movement to improve the welfare of boys in our society and he encouraged them to engage with the environment.   The Outward Bound Movement was introduced by Kurt Hahan in response to the moral decline of young people.   These educationalists initiatives were in response to crises in society caused by industrialisation.       Practitioners are always looking for new ways of helping children learn.   Rudolph Steiner schools’ endorse outdoor play for learning (Pound,2009).    Froebel realised the importance of play and Stalozzi the importance of physical education (Pound, 2009).Over time society seems to have lost sight of the importance of regular outdoor opportunities, e.g. playing fields have been sold to boost funding.   Recently there is talk of the Forestry Commission selling forests to private enterprises and charities – Article in the Daily Mail, 2011, “Outcry stalls £100m forest sell off”.   The government identified the need to be active outdoors but their actions do not confirm.   Increase in reports of crime in society means parents no longer feel it is safe to let children play, outdoors, unsupervised.  There are many reasons for the lack of outside play but children need fresh air and exercise for their wellbeing. Research endorses outside play as being essential to children’s learning and well-being. (Bilton, 2008)    One response to learning in the outdoors, is ‘Forest School’, an idea derived from a culture of education in an outdoor environment in Scandinavia (Knight, 2009). Williams-Siegfredsen (2005, p.26) acknowledged  “for Foundation Stage children Forest School exactly addresses their developmental needs, fostering skills that then help them to succeed in our conventional learning environments”.

Practitioners from the Early Years department of Bridgwater College visited a nursery in Denmark in 1990.   Children were playing outside in all weathers, being in woodland, close to nature.   They learnt about the environment, how to look after it and how to respect each other.   Their physical skills were developed as they ran and balanced, they had open fires and whittled with knives.   It was noted that when the children attended formal schooling, after Forest School, at the age of 7, they arrived with high self-esteem and strong social skills and were confident and competent learners, attributes that would boost their academic learning. (Knight, 2009)   The Bridgwater practitioners brought the idea back to England and developed it in their college nursery.

The Forestry Commission paid The New Economics Foundation (NEF) to research the benefits of ‘Forest Schools’ (See Appendix 1)   They found children who attended ‘Forest Schools’ took pride in their surroundings, had improved confidence, could work well in a team and had more motivation to learn and so in 2002 The Forestry Commission saw the relevance of ‘Forest Schools’ and supported it by piloting ‘Forest Schools’ in England, replicating the research.   In 2003, Green Light Trust (GLT) launched ‘Forest Schools’ across England and ran Open College Network (O.C.N) courses to train practitioners.

Knight (2009) recognised that not only could ‘forest school’ approach help with educational attainment but could also help tackle other current social crises in the UK, such as child well-being, obesity, child behavioural problems and poor social skills.

Child well-being

One in three children are living in poverty in the United Kingdom (UK) this rate is the highest in the industrialised world.    Child poverty creates problems in education, employment, mental and physical health and social interaction.   Tony Blair set targets to end child poverty, in the UK, by 2020. The Government introduced ‘Every Child Matters (ECM)’ (DfES, 2003) to protect all children and improve their well being it was intended to “personalise learning to meet the full diversity of learners needs” (Chemisnais, 2008).

The child’s wellbeing in ECM (2003) is defined as:

  • being healthy,
  • staying safe,
  • enjoying and achieve,
  • making a positive contribution to society
  • achieving economic wellbeing.

Since 2003 ECM has underpinned all government initiatives. ECM (2003) was designed to bring together all relevant agencies and share information to protect the wellbeing of all children by

“encouraging a holistic approach to children and young people, with the possibility of support for parents and carers through universal services such as schools, health and social services and child care” (Ball, 2010, p.190).

However in 2007 UNICEF reported that England was 21st out of 21 industrialised countries in a survey on child well being.

Child wellbeing cannot eradicate child poverty but motivates children to want to better their life.   ‘Forest Schools’ has been identified as a philosophy which will “encourage and inspire individuals of any age through positive experiences and participation in engaging and motivating achievable tasks and activities in a woodland environment, helping to develop personal, social and emotional skills:  independence, self discovery, confidence, communication skills, raised self-esteem” (www.foresteducation.org).      The government promoted outdoor learning in its ‘Learning outside the classroom’ manifesto (DfES, 2006).   It aimed to identify weaknesses and strengths in educational settings so as to share practice and overcome barriers to learning in the outdoors, but it did not prescribe how to go about it. The report did not recognise that not all educational settings have the facilities needed for out door learning, e.g. inner city schools find it harder to access a woodland environment and logistics could prove costly.   The Forest school approach was not mentioned in this report and is not known about by many practitioners it seems – “only a handful of British schools have fully embraced the Danish model” (The Independent www.independent.co.uk. Feb. 2010).   It has proved challenging for the researcher to access information as to how many settings practise the Forest School ethos in the U.K.

Obesity

Obesity in children has been identified as a National priority.    The World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts there will be 700 million obese adults in the world by 2015 (www.news.bbc.co.uk.) Childhood obesity is constantly in the news for example an article in www.news.bbc.co.uk/health stated ‘childhood obesity soars in UK” It is a modern problem, data on obesity was not available fifty years ago. (see appendix 1) The DOH quoted “one in four children is obese” (DOH, 2006).        Early interventions are being sought as part of an anti-obesity campaign to counteract this costly problem.   The Government recognised the need to reduce obesity in its report “Healthy weight, healthy lives” in January, 2008.   The DOH and the DCSF,  have also endorsed the need to increase levels of exercise in children.   Many causes of obesity have been recognised.   The two obvious causes being eating too much and lack of exercise.  Another reason for obesity is “sedentary behaviour/low energy activities” suggests Knight (2009, p.32), e.g. using motorised transport, sitting in a classroom, listening to music, using the computer.   The issues of TV viewing and use of computers contributing to the lack of exercise is discussed by Sue Palmer in ‘Toxic Childhood’ (2006).   Slage says that lack of exercise is more the cause than the food intake, agreeing with BUPA, (2007), who say “it’s habits in eating and exercise” and these trends need to be reversed.   Children are not getting outside playing time so government suggests it is down to schools to give the children time for outside play and the opportunity to make decisions.   DCSF increased the amount of Physical Education (P.E.) in schools in 2007.   However, P.E. is often sacrificed due to curriculum constraints and lack of time, suggesting exercise has a low priority in society.

The BMA report ‘Preventing childhood obesity’ considered competitive sports are not for all children.   ‘Forest Schools’ offers a good alternative.   Children appreciate walking in the countryside and ‘Forest Schools’ encourages children to form good habits they can take into later life.   Knight (2009) says, it is easier to change habits whilst they are young.   The DOH says that habits and attitudes to exercise are formed whilst they are children and stay with them when they become adults.    Not only do the children form good habits, but children take the idea home to their parents, therefore, it could be considered as part of an anti-obesity campaign for the whole population (O’Brien and Murray, 2006, p.44)

However Forest School developed from a Scandinavian lifestyle and culture, one which is family orientated, with a love of the outdoors and being active, in a country which has a natural abundance of woodland unlike the UK.   Not only does the environment impact on the implementation of ‘Forest Schools’ in the U.K, but the traditional cultures of countries affect it too, e.g. attitudes towards maternal employment, views of the child, source of funding and control over provision (See Appendix 4).    Forest School sessions run for short periods of time, (normally 10 sessions, half a day each week) it is unrealistic to think that the Forest school experiences will remain with them into later life.   Adults are needed to supervise and take their children out walking in the countryside, on a regular basis, to instil these habits but parents do not always have the time or the inclination, even if the child is keen to continue, therefore, making it an unlikely solution to solving obesity.

Behavioural problems and poor social skills

‘Forest Schools’ not only act as an early intervention to obesity but are recognised as a means to tackling behavioural problems.   BUPA, 2007, realised obesity not only caused chronic illness but also affects children’s emotional wellbeing, causing depression, low self-esteem dissatisfaction and dislike of their appearance.

Consideration to social and emotional issues needs considering.   Children used to play on building sites, this was not allowed but in the past adults turned a blind eye to it, whereas this would now be considered, ‘bad behaviour’. Has society changed its perception of ‘bad behaviour’?   Children seek adventure and because of all the boundaries and restrictions their behaviour is identified as anti-social.     As children have lost their outside play spaces, e.g. closure of school playing fields, they have also begun to lose their independence and freedom, which means children are losing their ability to be decisive and take risks.   Outside places where children can play are (parks or forests) are often not open to unaccompanied children and are bound by so many restrictions, e.g. the necessity to lay soft surfacing.    As the UK has become a ‘risk averse’, litigious society, playgrounds have been made so safe that the excitement has been taken out of them.    The Play Safety Forum (www.hortweek.com Jan. 2009) now encourages parks to be a little more adventurous and slowly loosening their approaches to safety, to encourage risk taking opportunities, e.g. parks now have skate boarding ramps.

However outdoors is perceived as more risky than indoors but in taking away the chance for children to learn about danger, we are taking away children’s rights (UNCRC, 1989).   Children need to learn how to take safe risks and how to assess dangers and respond accordingly.   ‘Forest Schools’ offer them the opportunity to take risks in an area that is as safe as possible and in so doing it might change the perception of what ‘anti-social behaviour’ is.

The Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum (DfES, 2007) describes how government initiatives have impacted on children’s poor social skills.   As parents return to work whilst the child is still very young, the child does not get devoted, uninterrupted attention and the relevant positive feedback from one consistent person needed to develop self awareness.     Continuity of care isn’t always possible in childcare settings due to changes in staff, making children’s boundaries inconsistent which are needed to learn right from wrong and for developing self confidence and self-esteem.   As a child builds in confidence their self-image improves and they respect themselves and then they can respect other people’s diversities and cultures. (Knight,2009)

‘Forest Schools’ as an early intervention helps children prepare for the stress of modern day living.   ‘Forest Schools’ can help children to boost their confidence, self-esteem, self-control and improve their attitude whilst building relationships to encourage a sense of community.   But Forest School mainly happens within the school community.  However, Sue Palmer (2006) links the way children are raised by their parents, to their behavioural problems and says that it leads to lack of motivation and social skills.   Children spend more time at home with their parents than in school.   QCA 2000 identifies the role of a parent partnership and suggests that settings “extend relevant learning and play activities, so that they continue at home” (Devereux and Miller,2004).   It is unrealistic to think that the short time spent in a Forest School experience can replace children’s day to day life experience.   Brofenbrenner (1979) suggests that the mesosystem (government initiative), macrosystem (educational setting) and microsystem (family), combined, can impact on a child’s experiences.

Forest School in the local area.

As previously mentioned, there appears to be little information regarding “Forest Schools” within the local area.   Nursery settings appear to be the main users of this approach.   Funding is more available for nurseries or schools where the need is seen as greater.   Grants are offered by the Forest Education Initiative, One Planet Living, Green Watch and Big Lottery, in the local area. Individual settings are responsible for incorporating ‘Forest Schools’ approach into their outdoor routines as appropriate.   Some use local outdoor centres, others have land-owners permission, some use woodlands on school grounds, whilst others share their grounds.   Provision is patchy but is spreading quickly with little written evidence to support it.   The responsibility of the NEF is to research social issues and support proposals for change, developing ways of researching to measure outcomes (Murray, 2004).   They have gathered short-term evidence but need to further research the long term.  Murray and O’Brien (2005, p.79) acknowledge the lack of research on the long-term effects of ‘Forest Schools’ on young children.   It is difficult to identify behavioural or educational achievement as being due to outdoor education.   (Swarbrick, Eastwood and Tutton, 2004) report that in one of the longest running ‘Forest Schools’ projects, in Somerset, children going into the primary phase of schooling are going in with increased confidence.   The NEF have provided a self-appraisal tool kit, consisting of a project story board, reporting templates and the evaluation poster workshop, for local settings to gather evidence on the eight outcomes of ‘Forest Schools’ (See Appendix 3).   Effective Early learning programme (EEL, 2003) suggests assessing children’s involvement as an excellent measure of the quality of the experience and their material could be used to evaluate the quality of children’s involvement and adult interaction with children on Forest School visits (Swarbrick, Eastwood and Tutton, 2004).  Evidence is needed to persuade head teachers, staff and parents to support the concept and ethos.   FEI has set up a group to maintain the ethos of the ‘Forest Schools’ approach in the U.K., as it is likely the original idea will be lost due to the lack of understanding.   It has been deemed important to keep checking that settings are adhering to its unique ethos.   Knight (2009) developed a description of  a  true ‘Forest Schools’ ethos and the researcher  has compared the local rural co-educational pre-preparatory independent school to her criteria, below:

On hearing about ‘Forest Schools’ the setting decided that a member of staff would go on an Open College Network (OCN) level 1 course to access more information about this philosophy and to find out how the school could make the most of its existing facilities.   The member of staff has now taken the OCN level 2 course and the information acquired has been circulated throughout the pre-preparatory department and put into practise with every child fortnightly in place of a PE lesson.

The setting tries to keep the ethos of ‘Forest Schools’ but does not meet all of Knight’s (2009) criteria.

To protect the ethos of ‘Forest Schools’ it is important to discuss the problems in collaboration with practitioners and parents in the local community.   Some schools find it difficult to fund the logistics, for example, wheelchair access and transporting the children to the Forest School can be expensive, therefore they bring the idea into the school grounds and try to create a natural area within it.   O’Brien (2004) would consider this as unsuitable as it does not provide the greenery to allow opportunities of creating ‘secret places’, which he regards as important for a child’s development.   The setting needs to be different to get the atmosphere and encourage creativity.   In the report ‘A school becomes a Forest School’ an inner city urban Primary School has converted ‘a nearby patch of abandoned woodland into their very own natural setting’.   This was assisted by a Park Ranger who believes that ‘any school is never far away from a natural setting, whether it is a local park or an abandoned allotment’ (www.tes.co.uk June, 2010).

Head teachers need to know that the investment is worth it (staffing, outlay for clothing, equipment, transport), but it is difficult to prove the success that ‘Forest Schools’ claim.   ‘Observations’ are time consuming and removes an adult from participating with the children.   If sessions are recorded then it is difficult to transcribe due to background noise and tricky to record information about individual children.

Head teachers and staff are conscious of the need to achieve targets.   Adults generally agree with the concept that ‘Forest Schools’ improve confidence and self-esteem but feel the need for academic justification for taking a day out of the classroom to go into the woodland.   The question might be asked, do children learn a lot in ‘Forest Schools’?  Hovelynck & Peeters, (2003) argue that outdoor education needs to be examined for educational value as well as pleasure.  The Curriculum for Excellence advocates that ‘real life’ learning has always proved successful in different ways for different children (DfEE, 1997 cited in Ball, 2008, p.90).       During a Forest School session there is no need to have separate PHSE lessons as this is incorporated with academic skills such as numeracy and literacy, which is initiated through the children’s interests.  Ofsted report ‘Learning outside the classroom’ (DfES, 2006) found that outside education

‘when planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupil’s personal, social and emotional development’.

However, according to Knight, a true Forest school should be ‘play-based, and, as far as possible, child-initiated and child-led’ as that is when children learn the skills needed to socially interact (Knight, 2009).  The Early Years Foundation stage agrees children need to initiate and lead play (DfES, 2007) and is supported by Bruce, who also adds that the children need a varying degree of intervention and support from adults, as “sensitive co-ordinators” Bruce (1997, p.48).

Practitioners realise children get a deeper understanding of the world when they use all their senses to explore, but it takes courage to let the children lead the learning and to change their perception that children can be outdoors all day and still learn, e.g. mark making equipment is not only for indoor use and outdoor space is not just for letting off steam.    ‘Forest School’ approach has been perceived as more beneficial for students who struggle in the classroom but Maslow (1949) would argue that the skills acquired are beneficial for self-actualisation, which benefits all students.

Sue Palmer (2008) identifies that all real play involves an element of risk and the more ‘real play’ is allowed the better they become at managing the risks, agreeing with Lindon (1999, p.11).   Staff and parents are inevitably concerned about the risk involvement when letting children loose in a woodland environment.    Parents are reassured and many settings have twilight meetings for practitioners and parents to meet and access the woods to identify the risks.   The teachers explain to the children how to avoid accidents and practise being safe.    Lindon (1999, p.10) takes the view that

“a well intentioned focus on keeping children as safe as possible has shifted towards looking for anything and everything that can go wrong”.  

Practitioners and parents need to be educated about the need for risk taking.   New policies are called for to allow for more risk and all practitioners need to be involved.   It is challenging for practitioners to learn to trust the children to test their boundaries, rather than to intrude.   However, we live in a culture of ‘safety first’, where children aren’t encouraged to play outside due to the fear of abduction, blame or legal action.   In other countries such as Scandinavia, Forest School type activities are a normal part of early education and they worry less about litigation.   In reality self-preservation is instinctive in children and they tend to stay quite close to an adult in an unknown environment until they have built their confidence.   An article “I climbed right up to here” (www.forestschool.com March 2011) says that the word ‘risk’ would be better named ‘challenge’ and children should be allowed to work through the challenges.   Practitioners can make more informed decisions regarding risk taking as they observe the children they work with.   Blair recommends that schools use generic risk assessment forms in “It’s safe to go outdoors” (TES, 2005).   If the children are not allowed to take risks because of Health & Safety regulations they may express themselves in challenging behaviour.   Mortlock (2000, p.22) believes ideal learning should be adventurous but hazards manageable.

True ‘Forest Schools’ have a saying,

“there is no such things as bad weather, only bad clothing” (Knight, 2009).  

Parents are inevitably concerned about their children’s wellbeing and the risk of becoming ill if allowed to be outside in all weathers.   Waterproof clothing is usually provided for only one group of children at a time and one size has to fit all.   The clothing is ideal for wet weather but in summer the children often wear short sleeves and short socks, leading to small scratches and grazes.   If the clothing is not stored on the site, it is impractical to think young children will carry the clothes to the site, to allow for England’s unpredictable weather.   It can also become colder as children walk deeper into the woods, therefore it proves difficult to decide which clothing is suitable for the weather.   Adults also need to be suitably attired depending on the weather.   Realistically ‘Forest School’ experience does not appeal to all practitioners.

Training the staff can also be costly and once the training has been paid for staff may move onto another school, leaving the setting without an O.C.N. Level 3 trained member of staff, required for a Forest School.   The model needs to be sustainable once the funding has gone, it must not rely on one enthusiastic, well trained, member of staff.

 CONCLUSION

O’Brien and Murray (2006) called ‘Forest Schools’ a marvellous opportunity for children to learn.   This report has looked at the advantages and disadvantages, both nationally and locally and found that the approach works well in Denmark but is difficult to adapt to our National culture and climate.   Swarbrick, Eastwood and Tutton (2004) recommend

“a secure justification for Forest School would need to include some measurement of progress and attainment in order to place the project firmly in the arena of measuring quality in ways that would justify investment on a national scale”.

Locally an up-to-date data base of schools and settings engaged in Forest Schools would be necessary.   Government is promoting outside learning to improve attainment of which ‘Forest School’ approach has been identified as a possible initiativebut it would seem that the main target is in improving childrens’ attainment rather than improving the learning experiences and well-being of each child.

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