The ‘Forest School’ concept originated in Scandinavia, where schools use local woodland areas to hold outdoor activities which foster children’s problem-solving and cooperation skills, as well as their confidence and self-esteem.
They are most common in early years and primary school settings, but until now little research has been done to demonstrate their impact on children’s learning and school experiences.
Dr Janine Coates of the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences and Dr Helena Pimlott-Wilson of the Department of Geography have conducted preliminary research in two primary schools in Nottinghamshire, one early years foundation class (4-5 years) and a Year 4 class (8-9 years).
Their initial findings suggest that engaging in a Forest School can contribute to the development of collaborative learning skills, by encouraging children to work with others on challenging outdoor activities.
This type of ‘experiential’ learning also appears to equip children with practical skills and an appreciation for being outdoors, which they can then transfer to family activities outside of school.
Forest Schools have also shown to be popular with head teachers and group leaders alike; citing a shift in focus away from the pressures of attainment and achievement and towards an inclusive way of developing children beyond academic skills and giving a more rounded educational experience.
One head teacher who took part in the study said Forest School gives children a “positive mindset towards school”.
“If they don’t enjoy school and feel all of the benefits that they can have from being part of a school, then getting the three R’s [reading, writing and arithmetic] into the minds of those children is going to be beyond a challenge.”
A larger study is planned for 2018.
Loughborough opened its own Forest School in late 2016, working with a local nursery to establish the initiative using the University’s Holywell Wood.
The children visit the woodland three to four days per week throughout the year, where they are given opportunities to explore the area, learn to identify the flora and fauna, as well as make fires, build dens and climb trees.
The space makes use of sustainable resources, including a fire circle built from local wood, and bug and hedgehog ‘hotels’ made from naturally sourced materials.
Danielle Marsh at Westwards Nursery in Loughborough leads the Forest School sessions at Holywell Wood.
She said: “It is a fabulous opportunity for children to explore the outdoor environment, develop a connection with nature and improve a whole range of skills from personal, social and emotional, to physical development and communication.
“They really enjoy participating in the activities and learning all about the woodland.”
The University’s Sustainability team has coordinated the project with Westwards Nursery.
Jo Shields, Sustainability Manager at Loughborough University said: “Promoting our sustainability initiatives in our community allows us to share the naturally biodiverse campus we live, work and play on.
“Engaging with the younger generation through educational outreach projects is one of our key objectives as it not only supports development, but it also means children are learning about the world and how to enjoy it and look after it.”