What is Nature Play and Forest School for Kids?

guest post by mudputty host: Wildlings Forest School

What is Forest School?

The Forest School movement is growing rapidly here in Australia – but what exactly is a Forest school, what does going to a Forest School actually involve and what are the benefits of attending a Forest School?

Why do we need Forest School?

Nature Play and Forest School seem to be the buzz words of the education world at the moment and rightly so. According to the American Academy of Paediatrics (2013), a recent study states that the average child spends eight hours a day in front of screens (television, video games, computers, smart phones and so on). Older children and adolescents are spending an average of eleven hours a day in front of screens and 75 percent of twelve-seventeen-year olds have their own mobile phone. The amount of time children spend in unstructured play has decreased by 50 percent, resulting in children devoting more of their time to indoor activities (Clements 2004). The number of children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder has skyrocketed to 25 percent (Cohen 2013). There has been a significant rise in the number of children being diagnosed with ADHD and Myopia is reaching epidemic proportions. Our children are getting weaker, fatter, sicker, clumsier, less resilient and less imaginative. They’re having trouble paying attention in school, experiencing difficulty controlling emotions and having trouble safely navigating their environment (Hanscom 2016). You can read more about this and buy Hascom’s fantastic book ‘Balanced and Barefoot’ here (this book is a game changer!):

But there is hope! There is a growing trend in early child care centres, kindy’s and schools for getting children into the world outside, come rain or shine, to get hands-on with the natural environment. It’s known as the ‘Forest School movement’, and while it may seem like a new trend in education, it is steeped in history.

Outdoor classroom Children on sand dunes


Forest Schooling in the UK (which has henceforth blossomed in Australia and New Zealand) was first modelled on theopen air culture and ancient Nordic philosophy ‘fruiluftsliv’ of Scandinavia. It is a well-known part of life in Scandinavia, but relatively unknown to the rest of the world. This philosophy embodies the idea that returning to nature, is returning home (Joyce 2012). The Forest School movement began to emerge in the UK in the early 1990s, but it is only in the past 5-10 years that it has really started to gain momentum in Australia.

So what is Forest School and what does it involve?

Forest school is essentially outdoor, nature-based learning that focuses on the holistic development of the child (Worroll 2016). Forest schools help students develop confidence, self-esteem, independence and creativity through experiencing the natural world and by teaching practical, outdoor skills. Students work outside regularly in an outdoor natural space over a long period of time (preferably at least a year). The ethos has grown in popularity in Australia over the past decade in parallel to growing concerns over "cotton wool kids" overly protected from risks and rarely exposed to nature.

Forest school curriculum (if the school uses one) is largely emergent, child-directed, and play-based. In other words children are free to play and learn as where, when and how they choose. The ethos of Forest School allows learners the time and space to develop their interests, skills, and understanding through practical, hands-on experiences. At a Forest School, children have the freedom to explore, play, build, create, imagine, and use their senses to experience the outdoor environment and engage with one another. Sustainability is woven into the culture of the classroom, and as nature becomes the third teacher, sustainability becomes the foundation on which both children and teachers stand (Forest Schools Canada, 2014).

There is a strong emphasis on educators observing, learning with, and teaching students in the context of the environment. This process of observation allows children the space and opportunity to delve into various activities and experiences guided by their imagination, rather than explicit, external direction. It also leads to a process of inquiry in which educators’ primary role is to ask a multitude of questions based on what is emerging from a student’s questions, experiences, and imagination. The guiding principle at a Forest School is that children are competent and engaged learners, and with guidance and support, are able to lead their own learning process in directions far beyond what an educator can initiate on their own (Forest Schools Canada, 2014).

Child by creek at Wildlings Forest School

What do children do at Forest School?

The activities that happen in a Forest School also vary, depending on the season, climate, landscape, animals that have visited the night before, trees that have blown down in the wind, the kinds of provocations elicited by the educator, various tools and loose parts for building and creating, the children who are in attendance, how long the group has been formed, and most importantly, what interests the child. Some activities are usually provided, but rather than being adult-led, each child chooses and tailors the activity to suit them, while the leaders observe their preferences and development. Sometimes children will work independently, finding solace in their own world and creations and ponderings. Other times children will work collaboratively to create something, problem solve, support one another, dream of a bigger and better world. Forest School can often be described as a ‘magical’ thing to witness, as it’s often a microcosm of collaboration, communication, trust building, and a working model of consensus building (Forest Schools Canada, 2014).

What all Forest Schools have in common is an innovative approach to early childhood education that centres on outdoor play and fosters environmental stewardship. The activities tend to be child-led and play-based. The children learn through direct experience using their five senses in nature. Learning happens by stimulating each child’s innate curiosity and sense of wonder.

The scope of activities that can take place at Forest School is enormous. Just some activities that could take place on any given day include:

  •   Sensory walks
  •   Foraging
  •   Shelter building
  •   Mini beast hunts
  •   Tree climbing
  •   Campfire cooking
  •   Woodwork
  •   Nature art
  •   Games like Hide and Seek
  •   Fire building and lighting
  •   Puddle and mud jumping
  •   Meditation and yoga
  •   Use of hand tools
  •   Imaginary play and role play

Where are Forest Schools Programs held?

Despite the name, Forest School can take place in any natural outdoor environment, which may be on school premises or in a local wild space (Schoolrun.com, 2017). Ideally the program would be held in a forest or bushland but it could be in a paddock, a playground with a grassy area, a creek or even a beach. Trees are really handy; running water, whilst beautiful isn’t essential.

Currently, more private schools than state schools run Forest School programs, and these programs tend to be aimed at the early years. However, Forest School programs have had great success in the UK with Secondary students and students with disabilities, behavioral and learning difficulties.

Is it Safe?

The idea of letting tiny children experiment with knives and fire might sound scary, but safety is paramount during Forest School sessions. Whilst currently there is no accredited Forest School qualification in Australia (yet), you will find that most leaders of Forest School programs will have a Level 3 Forest School qualification (which covers essential safety training such as risk assessment and food hygiene) and First Aid in a Childcare Setting (which includes CPR, Asthma and Anaphylaxis). Don't hesitate to ask your program leader what qualifications they have and if you aren't satisfied, go to another program Schools can either choose to train an existing member of staff to lead Forest School, employ an already trained practitioner, or contract in a Forest School service.

Forest school is child-centred with a high adult to child ratio. Observation, rather than direction, is key, and children learn to care for the natural environment through their activities. Staffing levels are high: General ratios depend on insurance and school requirements but generally one Level 3 Forest School Leader must be present for every thirty children with a minimum of two leaders present at all times. Some activities such as whittling with pen knives and using a bow saw, require children to be supervised by Forest School Leaders at a one-to-one ratio. All teachers, volunteers and contractors must complete a criminal record check. A thorough site assessment is completed the morning of each school day to ensure that the environment is a safe place in which children can learn. Children are involved in these safety sweeps and discussions at the beginning of each session and are inducted into safe tool use and fire lighting before beginning such activities. Although children are encouraged to assess risk for themselves, this is always with close adult guidance. Essentially whilst some of the activities may seem ‘risky’ they are in fact managed so well that the risk benefits far outweigh the risk and they are deemed low risk activities.

All Forest School programs should have Public Liability insurance up to $20 million. Always ask before signing your child up.

The Benefits of Forest School

Children benefit from the simple act of being outdoors, however the additional benefits of learning in a natural environment are many. Forest school helps children develop many skills that are hard to teach in the classroom. Research has shown that involvement in a Forest School program improves mental and spiritual health, communication skills and social relationships. Researchers studying Forest Schools have found that outdoors, children hone their motor skills, engage in more creative play, have fewer conflicts, stay healthier, learn to be more independent and develop a compassion for nature and wildlife that is likely to last a lifetime. UK Forestry Commission research (2015) shows a ripple effect whereby youngsters who have experienced Forest School, go on to encourage their parents to venture outside. Just some of the MANY other benefits of Forest School include:

  •   Children learn to assess, appreciate and take risks, making sensible, informed decisions about how to tackle the activities and experiences they encounter
  •   Through trial and error children learn to deal with failure and develop the resilience to keep trying
  •   Children learn to be self-sufficient and take care of themselves, which boosts their confidence and self-esteem
  •   Connecting with nature helps children feel part of the worlda tree.  
  •   Increases understanding of and appreciation for nature
  •   Augments ecological literacy
  •   Makes additional resources available for managing difficult behaviours
  •   Accommodates multiple learning styles
  •   Affordable and community-enhancing way to deal with school space issues
  •   Promotes safe risk-taking, and reduces harmful and hazardous behaviours
  •   Creates sustainable and healthy communities
  •   Encourages problem-solving skills
  •   Improves communication skills
  •   Creates engaged and passionate learners
  •   Motivates engaged and passionate educators
  •   Supports creative and imaginative thinking
  •   Empowers learners
  •   Boosts self-esteem
  •   Increases “school readiness” (when children transition into traditional school environments)
  •   Provides greater concentration skills
  •   Improves health (environmental, physical, emotional, mental)
  •   Develops fine and gross motor skills
  •   Students experience fewer sick days (Forest Schools Canada, 2014)

Forest School and the Curriculum

Forest School ties in with many areas of the Australian Curriculum. For example, being outdoors year-round helps children learn about weather and the seasons, which are part of the program of study in geography; studying mini beasts and plant life relates to the science curriculum; and building cubby houses and using hand tools links with design and technologies.

By encouraging growth of the seven General Capabilitiesof the Australian Curriculum(Numeracy, Literacy, ICT and Capability, Critical and Creative Thinking, Personal and Social Capability, Ethical Understanding, and Intercultural Understanding) Forest Schooling help students to become 'successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens' (Australian Curriculum, 2017).

Forest Schools enable the development of knowledge, understanding and skills relating to the Australian Curriculum’sCross-Curriculum Prioritiesof Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures, Asia and Australia’s Engagement with Asiaand Sustainability. Incorporation of these priorities in Forest School Programs encourage conversations between students, teachers and the wider community.