History of Forest School

Forest School in the UK may seem a fairly new movement. In reality it is based on a rich heritage of outdoor learning going back at least to the 19th century.  Philosophers, naturalists and educators in Europe and the UK such as Wordsworth, Ruskin, Baden Powell, Leslie Paul (who founded the Woodcraft Folk in 1925), Kurt Hahn (who founded Gordonstone and was the inspiration for our first outdoor education centres), Susan Isaacs and the Macmillan sisters all laid the foundations for what is known as Forest School today. During the 1970s and 80s our education system moved toward a more teacher/outcome-centred approach in an attempt to improve numeracy and literacy, in particular, and we had the introduction of the national curriculum.  Somewhat in response to this, there was a growth of ‘alternative’ educational models in the 1990s and it is in this context that Forest School emerged.

Early Antecedents to Forest School in the UK (Mel McCree 2012)

history of fs pic


In 1993 a group of nursery nurses at Bridgwater College, Somerset, visited Denmark to look at the pre-school system. The open air culture (‘friluftsliv’) is seen as a way of life in Scandinavia and permeates early years education.  The Bridgewater nursery nurses returned enthused by the largely outdoor, child-centred/play-based pedagogy employed by the Danish pre-school pedagogues. They started their own ‘Forest School’ with children attending the college creche.   They observed children, watching their own creativity blossom and ‘scaffolded’ skills and ideas. Their entire practise was impacted as a result.

In 1995 the college developed a BTech in Forest School and started to offer it to early years practitioners in particular.  Many involved in outdoor learning saw this as something that built on the UK’s outdoor learning heritage and soon Forest School was being offered around the UK.

From 2000 Wales and various local authorities in England took up Forest School – notably Oxfordshire and Worcestershire, both of which worked with local colleges to deliver the training. Other authorities soon followed suit including Shropshire, Norfolk and Warwickshire. At the same time, other training providers emerged and in Wales a group of trainers from England and Wales, with the support of the Forestry Commission in Wales, developed the Open College Network (OCN) qualification, which began in 2003.

In 2002 a network of practitioners held the first national conference at which a UK definition of Forest School was formulated: ‘An inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve, develop confidence and self esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a local woodland environment.’

Along with this, the network also identified some of the key features of Forest School:

  • It is run by qualified level 3 practitioners.
  • It is a long term process with regular contact with a local wooded environment (preferably over the seasons).
  • It follows a child-centred pedagogy where children learn about and manage risk.
  • It has a high adult:child ratio.
  • Observations of the learners are key to enabling scaffolding of the learning.
  • Care for the natural world is integrated.

In 2011, the definition, principles and criteria were reviewed and built upon during the consultation for the establishment of the FSA. View 2011 principles and criteria here.

The main national networking support for Forest School practitioners throughout the UK from 2000 onwards came from the Forestry Commission through the Forest Education Initiative (FEI).  Forest School continued to grow and the FEI co-ordinators in England, Wales and Scotland took on an increasingly larger role supporting practitioners on the ground.

In Wales this particularly took the form of the establishment of the Forest School Trainers Network in 2005 and the hosting of a number of conferences.  In 2001 Forest School Wales was formed – a practitioners’ support network. The Forestry Commission also commissioned some of the first quantitative and qualitative research into Forest School. In 2005 Murray and O’Brien (a partnership between the New Economics Foundation and the Forestry Commission) published their study on Forest School in Oxfordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire and Wales, ‘Such Enthusiasm – a joy to see‘.

The Forestry Commission was devolved in Scotland in 2003, and Forestry Commission Scotland immediately supported Forest School training in Scotland. They also went on to commission a study into Forest School in Scotland published by Lynnette Borradaile in 2006.

In England many of the FEI cluster groups increasingly got involved with Forest School and its growth became almost meteoric, aided by a growing number of training providers and courses. The Forestry Commission also gave grants for local Forest School provision.  In 2007 the Wales Trainers Network was joined by more providers. Criteria for joining the network were formulated to ensure certain standards should be met. For more info on the Trainers’ Network click here.

In 2008, after talks between practitioners involved with the England network and the Institute for Outdoor Learning (IOL), it was decided to form a practitioners’ network  and the IOL Forest School Special Interest Group (FSSIG) was formed with a steering group duly elected.  During the same year the Quality Assurance scheme that had been developed in Worcestershire was developed further by the FEI and piloted in a number of settings around the UK.  The Forest School Quality Improvement Framework (FSQUIF) was launched in 2009.  This is a self assessment tool for practitioners that helps them assess the quality of their own Forest School. Link to FSQUIF.

In 2009 there was a majority vote at the IOL FSSIG AGM to pursue the formation of a Forest School National Governing Body (NGB) and in 2010 an online consultation was conducted to see if practitioners were in favor of the group looking further into establishing an NGB. A majority of 80% of the 900 respondents was in favor.  Also in 2010, a national conference was held at Worcester University organized by the IOL FSSIG at which Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, gave a keynote address, raising Forest School’s profile even further.

In 2010 OCN Wales (AGORED) became independent and the GB Trainers Network was formed. Trainers networks now meet in Wales and Scotland and feed into the GB network.

In 2010 the Curriculum for Excellence through Outdoor Learning in Scotland saw Forest School as a ‘good fit’.  In 2011 FEI Scotland appointed a Forest School co-ordinator.

After the second IOL FSSIG AGM in Autumn 2010 it was decided to establish a steering group to look at the feasibility of an NGB.  In 2011 funding for a one year development officer post was secured and Erica Wellings was appointed to conduct a more in depth consultation into what an NGB may do and to produce a business plan.

After the second conference held in Autumn 2011 in Wiltshire at which Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys, was the keynote speaker, the reviewed FS ethos, principles and criteria were published.  A business plan for the NGB was published in February 2012, showing that at least 9000 people had been through the FS training since 1995 and that more local authorities were taking on Forest School.

On 7th July 2012 the Forest School Association (FSA) was launched at Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire as the new professional association for Forest School and the governing body for training.  Directors were duly elected and the work of the FSA began!  In November 2012 the first development officer, Gareth Davies, was appointed, initially for one year.

The History of Forest School – articles by John Cree and Mel McCree – as published in Horizons Magazine searchable on the IOL archive.


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