Forest schools are experiencing a surge in growth as children reconnect with nature and the outdoors in the wake of stifling pandemic lockdowns

Of 200 UK schools surveyed by the Forest School Association (FSA) in 2021, as many as two-thirds have reported an increase in demand for places since March 2020. Some say they are booked solid for the foreseeable future, and many expect the boom to continue. 

Activity providers believe that Covid safety concerns and more awareness about the mental health benefits of outdoor life are likely reasons for parents seeking alternative learning paths for their children. Others believe parents have been ‘empowered’ by homeschooling and were spurred on by the pandemic to try and improve on the traditional curriculum. 

“Having children at home during the periods of lockdown will have been quite demanding for many parents and children,” FSA chief executive Gareth Wyn Davies told Positive News. 

“They may have thought about alternative ways of educating their children, and they may well have had the opportunity to take their children outdoors more during that period, spent time with them outdoors, and gained appreciation for that experience.” 

The Forest School movement arrived in the UK fewer than 30 years ago from Scandinavia, where outdoors culture – or friluftsliv, a passion for nature and the open air – is ingrained. 

Forest School activities are intended to complement traditional learning, and typically take place in woodlands or a natural environment: viewed as a safer, more Covid-proof option compared to the confines of a classroom. 

Forest schools

Forest schools teach bushcraft, den building and promote games such as hide and seek. Image: Gabby Orcutt

Sessions might include bushcraft, mud play, den building and games such as hide and seek. 

And while many young people had little choice but to turn to social media and technology to communicate with their peers, forest schooling offers a chance to refresh emotional and social skills through face-to-face play.

Mainstream education providers are waking up to the benefits of forest school sessions, too, said Wyn Davies. But he said that budget constraints mean a piecemeal approach is preventing a wider rollout of the forest school experience.  

Engagement with nature has a very positive effect on their academic life

“Schools want to give it to all of the children, but money, time and the pressures of the curriculum prevent that from happening,” he reported.“They tend to offer smaller blocks of this outdoor experience to all children, which is great. But a forest school is a much longer-term thing. 

“My preference would be for children going out once a week or at least once a fortnight to have that engagement with nature, because the evidence seems to show it has a very positive effect on their academic life when they come back in.”

Main image: Fat Camera/Getty

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