Forest School myth busting

There seems to be some confusion over some elements of Forest School out there in general circulation. To help dispel these myths we have compiled this list of issues we’ve heard about and then busted them!


Myth 1: 'Forest School is a type of badge that schools can collect, similar to schemes such as "Ecoschools" & "Health Schools"'

Forest School is the name of a specific ethos – a way of working with people in an outdoor natural space for an extended period of time, often a full year. Qualified practitioners carefully facilitate programmes which are uniquely tailored to the needs of the individuals within the group and have the fundamental aim of building participants’ self esteem, confidence, independence and creativity. The name does not refer to an actual place; it refers to the philosophy. Forest School programmes work in a variety of situations and locations (not just schools). Therefore, it is not possible for schools to become ‘a Forest School’, however schools can provide Forest School programmes for their pupils.

The Council for Learning Outside the Classroom provide a badging scheme for schools to recognise those which are doing quality ‘learning outside the classroom’. Forest School, and other forms of outdoor learning, can help a school gain this quality badge.

Myth 2: 'If you take groups outside regularly for learning then you must be doing Forest School'

There are many different types of outdoor learning, all of which provide fantastic learning experiences for children and young people. Some examples of other types of outdoor learning are:
• environmental education
• field studies
• bushcraft
• horticulture
• Earth Education
• adventurous activities
• Coyote Mentoring

There are many more! All of these approaches have different focuses and underlying aims and therefore will have their own methodologies. Likewise, Forest School also has a distinct ethos that makes it Forest School, just as all the above have key features that make them what they are. Any type of outdoor learning can be done regularly (for example; an after-school bushcraft club once a week, or a year-long gardening project to maintain a school’s growing area), not just Forest School. To be ‘doing Forest School’ the programme being provided would need to follow the philosophy of Forest School, part of which is that it happens over a long period of time. Do remember that the more the variety of outdoor learning approaches a person has experience of the wider the learning opportunities – the greater the diversity the greater the learning potential! Please visit the Institute for Outdoor Learning website for more information about outdoor learning.

Myth 3: 'I can’t do Forest School because I haven’t got access to a woodland'

It is the philosophy that is the is the essential element of Forest School, not the site. Woodland is an ideal environment as the diversity and abundance of natural resources make it easy to facilitate learner-led discovery. It is perfectly possible to run Forest School in other natural environments, including school grounds, grasslands/meadows, beaches/coastal areas and heathlands. However, in these environments the Forest School leader may need to import materials (such as poles, logs or other natural materials for construction or craft), and make provision for any addition needs posed by the site (for example on exposed landscapes like beaches it may be more important to provide appropriate shelter than in a sheltered woodland site).

Myth 4: 'You can run Forest School if you have a level 1 Forest School accreditation, as long as you don’t go off site'

The Level 1 accreditation is designed only as an introduction to the Forest School ethos and does not cover any of the leadership aspects of running a Forest School programme. Level 3 is the minimum level of accreditation required to deliver Forest School regardless of location. The level 3 training contains assessments of the practitioner’s practical skills and awareness of health and safety, as well as their leadership of groups in the outdoors and ability to facilitate the Forest School ethos. Level 1 and 2 Forest School training do not assess these elements as they are designed as an introduction and for supporting assistants respectively. Please see FS qualifications.

Myth 5: 'You have to be a qualified Forest School leader to use tools or fire with children/young people' ('and you have to use Tools and Fire to be doing Forest School')

Tools and fire can be hugely beneficial learning experiences for children and young people, and can be elements within all sorts of outdoor learning approaches, not just Forest School. For example, using tools and fire are key parts of bushcraft and also the scouting movement. However, these types of outdoor learning may introduce and use them differently to Forest School and for different reasons as have different aims and a different philosophy to Forest School. If any teacher or practitioner working with children/young people decides to use tools and/or fire with groups, their employer has a legal responsibility to ensure that health and safety law is adhered to. Legally employers must ensure that any significant risks are managed and that staff have appropriate training, first aid provision, welfare requirements, supervision levels, protective equipment, risk management systems and emergency procedures for all aspects of their job and workplace (this would include the outdoor environment and outdoor learning as well as indoor). Another consideration for employers is that if staff (and learners) are preparing and cooking food on fires, then staff should have an awareness of appropriate food hygiene practices therefore training may be required. It is also important to be aware that legally you must have landowner’s permission to light a fire. Staff have a legal responsibility to follow their employer’s health and safety guidance and report anything that they feel could pose a risk. Please visit the Health and Safety Executive’s website to find out more about health and safety law.

Tools and/or fire may be used within Forest School programmes if the Forest School practitioner decides that the learner/s are ready and there is a reason why acquiring the skills will benefit an area or areas of their development (just the same as any other element being introduced into a Forest School programme). Every Forest School programme is different because it is centred on and guided by the individuals within the group. The learner led ethos means that you cannot say for definite which experiences will be part of the programme, nor when they will be introduced if they are at all. So some Forest School programmes may use the experiences of fire and/or tools as key parts of their programme because individuals are interested in them and need to develop these skills to support their personal learning journey; whereas others may not use them at all, because the children/young people are either not ready, not interested, or actively engaged in other experiences.

Level 3 Forest School practitioner training covers all aspects of the above in regards to applying this to a Forest School context. The training supports practitioners to create their own Forest School handbook which will contain all their policies and procedures (for example in managing risk, use and management of fire and tool use and maintenance) for their Forest School.

Myth 6: 'You have to be a qualified Forest School leader to take groups to a woodland'

Many different Outdoor Learning approaches will use woodland environments, not just Forest School. For example, bushcraft, environmental education and field studies (and many others too) will often use woodland sites, however these types of outdoor learning may use the environment differently (as they have different aims and philosophies to Forest School). Anyone using a woodland site for outdoor learning will need to ensure they have the landowner’s permission to be there (unless it’s a public right of way or access land), otherwise they will be trespassing (with the exception of Scotland where access rights and responsibilities are governed by the Outdoor Access Code). It’s responsible to seek permission and work co-operatively with landowners when exercising your rights with groups. Employers will also usually be required to check whether the landowner have public liability insurance which covers the site being used, and a suitably experienced person to undertake a site risk assessment, which depending on the site and frequency of use, may involve seeking the services of a qualified arboriculturalist. Employers will also need to ensure that the remoteness of the site is considered within risk management systems; that access points are known in case of an emergency, additional emergency equipment is carried if deemed necessary, communication systems are in place and consider what ratios are appropriate for the site, planned activities and the group. Staff will need to follow their employer’s guidelines regarding taking children/young people offsite (including transporting groups) and ensure parental/guardian consent is given for the visit and activities.

Level 3 Forest School practitioner training covers all aspects of the above in regards to applying this to a Forest School context. The training supports practitioners to create their own Forest School handbook which will contain all their policies and procedures (for example in managing risk, transporting children) for their Forest School. Leaders will also have their own communication policies of how they link with landowners, other staff, parents and the learners themselves.

Myth 7: 'I can’t become a Forest School Leader because I’m not a teacher'

People from all sorts of backgrounds come to Forest School training, including teachers, teaching assistants, environmental educators, ecologists, woodland owners, artists, countryside rangers, scout/guide leaders, youth workers, parent volunteers and many more. To undertake the level 3 Forest School practitioner training there are prerequisites to meet to be accepted onto a course. If you don’t have a teaching or equivalent qualification in play or youth work, you need at least 2 years’ experience of working with your chosen client group instead. It is worth being aware that the level 3 course in particular contains a lot of written work (as well as practical assessments) and so prospective students are advised to have a level 2 qualification in something (Level 2 is the equivalent of GCSE A to C grade or NVQ2 etc). It is possible for students to progress up the Forest School training levels on some courses (different training providers will structure the training differently). Most training providers will be happy to discuss entry requirements with prospective students, so it is worth contacting them and discussing this before you book onto a course.

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