Rachel Mills
September 7, 2023

The rise of forest schools and the benefits for young children

For many of us as parents, the challenges of homeschooling our children during lockdown, also led to us recognising the limitations of the curriculum. In addition to this, faced with reduced opportunities to get out of the house and being…

For many of us as parents, the challenges of homeschooling our children during lockdown, also led to us recognising the limitations of the curriculum.

In addition to this, faced with reduced opportunities to get out of the house and being confined to one walk a day, it also brought home to lots of us, just how valuable being able to go outside is.

Forest schools, for outdoor, child-led learning, have grown in popularity in the UK over recent years. They have been shown to improve the physical, social and emotional wellbeing of children and to help with their academic progress.

When the outdoor environment is used as a classroom, it opens up more opportunities for learning and for developing a healthier lifestyle.

‘According to a 2021 survey by the Forest School Association (FSA) that includes 200 UK schools, as many as two-thirds have noted an increase in demand for Forest School places since the beginnings of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Some have even reported that they are completely booked for the foreseeable future.’ (The Optomist Daily, 2022)

How do forest schools work?

Forest schools involve a child-led learning process that takes place outdoors, in the natural environment. It focuses on developing skills such as confidence, teamwork, independence, communication, physical stamina and concentration.

With a high adult to pupil ratio, children are able to undertake more challenging activities and make decisions, without the undue risk of harm.

Forest school attendance often takes place alongside more traditional school learning, with visits to the same site on a regular basis. Some forest school settings also have classes for home educated pupils and holiday club provision.

What are the potential benefits of forest schools for the children attending?

  • Increased physical fitness and stamina
  • Development of gross and fine motor skills
  • Improved language development, increasing their vocabulary and communication skills
  • Increased knowledge, understanding and respect for the natural environment
  • Improving team-building skills and developing awareness and empathy
  • Increased confidence and motivation, especially for pupils who struggle with a typical classroom environment
  • Increased self-esteem
  • Learning to recognise and enjoy the benefits of being in the natural environment

What are the benefits of forest school for pre-school children?

Forest school provides a natural environment in which young children are able to develop their sensory awareness, while encouraged and protected. They can learn about the sights, sounds and smells around them and develop their natural curiosity.

Being outdoors is good for their mental health and well-being, helps with their physical development and stamina and can lead to a life-long enjoyment of being outside.

Learning through play is very important in the early years and forest school provides open, challenging spaces to facilitate this.

What are the benefits of forest schools for teachers and practitioners?

‘Forest school is a way of teaching that is attracting attention amongst educational professionals. There is anecdotal evidence from teachers and others who have come into contact with Forest school that it can have a profound and positive effect on the way children and young people relate to each other and the world around them.’ (Forest Research)

Many children struggle with the confines and constraints of the traditional classroom environment. This can often be the case if pupils have SEND, anxiety, or existing behaviour issues. The freedom offered by forest school visits, can have a calming effect, allowing them to grow and develop their skills more naturally, increasing their confidence and decreasing many of the behaviours triggered by anxiety.

Teachers are able to observe the learning and behaviour of their pupils, within the forest school environment and witness different techniques that positively impact their pupils’ learning and development. It helps to empower teachers and motivate them to try other positive techniques within the classroom.

They will also be able to spot talents and abilities that their pupils have, that may not show up in a conventional classroom setting focused on academic learning, like team-leading, empathy and physical confidence. Seeing a different side to these pupils, can help to build stronger teacher-pupil relationships.

What are the benefits of forest school for families?

Due to concerns about safety, in the last few decades, there has been a huge shift in the number of children playing outside, unsupervised, in their local area. Prior to the mid-1980s, it was common for children to play outdoors in the fields, woods and forests with their friends, coming home in time for meals or when it got dark! They learnt to challenge themselves physically, taking manageable risks and learning from the natural environment and each other.

In recent years, confidence and independence has declined in young people, as a result of relying more on their parents to take them places and spending more time online than outdoors. Forest school provides a space for children to have the benefit of outdoor experiences and independence, in a way in which they are protected too. This is extremely beneficial for them on their journey to adulthood and more likely to result in independent life-long learning, curiosity and confidence.

Holiday camps held in a forest school setting, offer childcare that is stimulating, active and varied. They help children to gain confidence, independence, self-awareness and to learn about risk-taking in a more protected environment.

Many children who have attended forest school have then wanted to share their knowledge, success and enthusiasm with their families, encouraging their parents to take them to outdoor places more often. The freedom to have fun together, as a family, outdoors, where everyone can run around or explore together, is great for family bonding. This then has a positive impact on whole family health and well-being.

You can find local forest schools using this link.

and the references below also provide further information about forest school provision.







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