After the last year of online learning and zoom meetings, it is clear to see why the popularity of Forest Schools (a child-focused learning process that emphasises the importance of holistic growth through unstructured play, exploration and supported risk-taking) is increasing. Since arriving in the UK in 1993, the movement – inspired by Scandinavia’s outdoor culture (‘friluftsliv’) – sees sessions held either entirely or predominately outdoors, with the aim of supplementing, as opposed to replacing, traditional education. As a result, recognition of Forest School has gone from strength to strength, as educators and parents recognise the value it has on assisting learners to develop socially, emotionally, physically and intellectually.
Out of the over 200 forest schools that were surveyed by the Forest School Association (FSA), around two-thirds have said that demand for their services had increased since March 2020. There were a variety of reasons mentioned, which included increased awareness of the benefits of the outdoors (particularly in relation to stress and anxiety).
“I don’t think it’s ever been more popular,” says Gareth Wyn Davies, chief executive of the FSA, who expects demand to keep increasing. But it’s still got some way to go. “It’s a fairly young sector, just over 20 years old. And it’s a grassroots moment – it doesn’t have that top-down government attention yet.”
State schools across the UK are progressively putting on forest school sessions for students within the school day, due to the positive impacts they are having on mental and physical health, in addition to behaviour and academic attainment.
Vicky Stewart, director of Brightwood Training, feels that forest schools provide a space to teach children social, emotional and physical skills that have become unpractised during lockdowns, and provides an opportunity to ensure that children’s needs are being met.
“Children are indoors using technology to talk to their friends rather than going outdoors, and they have relied more and more on technology – since Covid that has happened even more.” As a result, she plays traditional group based games with the children – such as hide and seek, tag and grandmother’s footsteps – to help children reconnect with nature, their peers and themselves.
According to Lewis Ames, co-director of Devon-based forest school, Children of the Forest, lockdowns were “a chance to get off the treadmill” for families. Children of the Forest has seen a rise in applications since the start of the pandemic, with about 150 families on their toddler-group waiting list.
Spending time outside has been proven to lower stress, blood pressure and heart rate, while increasing mood and mental health. In Cornwall, we are lucky to have a variety of outdoor spaces on our doorstep, all which are completely free – from beaches, to moors or woodlands. So, whether you are walking, gardening, camping or looking for insects, try to make sometime to log off and learn from nature as well.