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Hannah Watkins visits an urban Forest School to explore how children learn outside the confines of the classroom

On a wintry afternoon with the skies charcoal grey and heavy with the threat of rain, I was invited to visit Eastwood Nursery School Centre for Children and Families to experience a very special urban Forest School, operating in Roehampton, South West London.

After donning our waterproof kit and wellies, we (seven children, six grown-ups) made our way across to the beautiful woodland grounds of Roehampton University, all the while looking around us for birds’ nests high up in the trees.


Once there, we wandered down stony paths and leaf covered ditches in search of puddles to play in.Now suitably muddy, we set off to find the grisly bear behind a wooden door hidden in the Victorian rockery. Knock, knock, knock . . . no answer . . . He must have been out doing his shopping, decided the children.

A stop at the pond followed, each with binoculars, giving us a chance to look for birds and match them up on our picture sheets. Playing in the leaves, we covered one of the children, then helped him up and dusted him down, saving some of the leaves to take home with us to watch their changing colours. A rest in camp provided us with time to reflect on what we had seen and heard, whilst having a hot chocolate and a snack before a game of hide and seek: “One, Two, where are you? Here I am!” Then home to chat together about what we had seen and felt out in the Forest School with mums and dads.

As I bade my farewells to Eastwood, it started to drizzle but for some reason it no longer mattered, I felt sunny, invigorated, challenged and ready to learn more . . .

Back to nature approach

Much has been made recently in the press and by the government of the need for outdoor play. In its manifesto on Learning Outside the Classroom, the government states that: “Every young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances. . . The potential for learning is maximised if we use the powerful combination of physical, visual and naturalistic ways of learning as well as our linguistic and mathematical intelligence.”

Evidence also continues to emerge which shows that exposure to greenery has a profound effect on children’s behaviour, attention, and physical and intellectual development, that is felt back in the classroom.

Perhaps this is due, in part, to a hangover from our historical survival needs. Dr Aric Sigman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, in an article for the TES, looked at theories of US biologists: “Our ancestors who sought green areas or lived as subsistence hunters, gatherers and farmers were more likely to eat, drink and survive. Today, many benefits associated with our exposure to greenery may be part of an evolutionary reward system reinforcing the very thing that kept us alive for hundreds of thousands of years.”

This is all very well but how can this learning experience be practically achieved in our crowded and urban-focused lives. Forest Schools such as Eastwood appear to be a promising start.

The UK often finds itself turning to Scandinavia for guidance as it is regularly at the forefront of new ideas and successful teaching methods. The original concept of forest schools was one such progressive initiative, implemented during the 1950s in Sweden.

A Swedish study found that children attending forest school were happier, had more developed social skills and their attention spans and co-ordination were better than city nursery children

A 13 month Swedish study found that children attending forest school were happier, had more developed social skills, their attention spans and co-ordination were better than city nursery children and they had fewer days off sick. This was believed to be due to the greater range of opportunities to play without interruption or lack of space. This, in turn, appeared to reduce stress levels, inconsiderate behaviour and aggression enabling the children to concentrate for longer and learn to work well in groups while building confidence and self-esteem.

In the forest school situation the reduction in stress levels and the open space contrasted to the closed environment where viruses and bacteria could spread easily and where the apparent higher stress levels seemed to be having a weakening effect on the children’s immune systems.

Urban Forest Schools

This outdoor approach to play and learning was brought to the UK during the 1990s after a group of nursery nurses and other educationalists visited Denmark and saw first hand the impact it had on the social and intellectual skills of the children.

Forest Schools in rural settings in the UK have caught the interest of the press over the last couple of years but little attention has been given to Forest Schools set up in city areas. However, they are beginning to spring up in urban areas through local co-operation to share woodland or natural spaces for the benefit of children.

“We have seen the dramatic effects Forest School has on our children in all areas of their development. The children absolutely love it!”

Katherine Milchem is the first Forest School Co-ordinator to be appointed in Wandsworth. She runs the Forest School sessions at Eastwood Nursery School Centre for Children and Families everyday, with children from 9 months to 5 years.

The Forest School was introduced at Eastwood by Liz Rook, the headteacher, and governor, Professor Tina Bruce, a leading expert and author, well known in the field of early years education. Through a link with Roehampton University, they use the wooded spaces of their nearby campus.

A number of the children that attend the sessions come from homes in confined high-rise buildings and many do not have access to a garden or safe natural spaces. Katherine explains: “We have seen the dramatic effects Forest School has on our children in all areas of their development. The children absolutely love it!”

Parents are encouraged to come too: “We’ve managed to get several parents involved, particularly dads! In the past, it has been very difficult to get dads into nursery.”

How does Forest School work?

At Eastwood, the children will go to Forest School at least twice a week with some groups going everyday. All seasons and all weathers are experienced by the children and they go out in waterproof kit, gloves and wellie boots. It is important that these are not one off sessions but continue for a number of weeks in the same format through each season so that the children are comfortable with the routine and can gain in confidence. In this way, leaders are able to see a progression in the children’s behaviour. There are no strict rules but rather boundaries. Routines and boundaries make children feel safe both emotionally and physically: “Some children don’t like change. When preparing for the session and getting dressed they scream for a couple of sessions but by sessions three and four they understand what is happening and really look forward to it.”

There is much more interaction between adult and child and between the children themselves. The time is very much a shared experience, based on child led open-ended learning

The ratios of adult partners and children are kept low with one adult to three children being ideal. For “sustained shared thinking” small groups are necessary rather than having the adult act as a monitor of behaviour. So there is much more interaction between adult and child and between the children themselves and the time is very much a shared experience, based on child led open-ended learning.

Kinaesthetic learners (who learn by doing) can really touch, feel and engage all the senses whilst developing motor skills at the same time, for example, by learning to walk on uneven ground and feeling the difference between concrete and grassy, rocky earth underneath their feet.

Calculated risk-taking is understood through climbing and walking through the muddy ditches, whilst easily achievable activities like den-building, picture-making, bug hunting, collecting and sorting, listening, singing, looking at the change in seasons, observing growth and decay, leaf printing, tree rubbing and using tools are all incorporated to enhance self-esteem and confidence.

Teamwork skills, co-operation and tolerance of others is developed through games like hide and seek. At the same time, the children grow spiritually through their contact with nature and their understanding of their impact on the world around them.

Before the children stop for a snack during each session there is a time for reflection when the children make a camp and talk together. This is key group time to chill and chat. The washing of hands before the snack and drink and tidying up afterwards are essential to the instilling of hygiene routines.

Children grow spiritually through their contact with nature and their understanding of their impact on the world around them

Photo sheets of different animals, birds or animal homes, for example, will be taken on the trip. Photos are also taken during the session. The children then look at the photos, identify animals and talk about what they have seen. This helps with communication and language skills. What the children have experienced will be followed through in classes, for example, the children may look at pictures of frogs and toads and discuss the differences, including colour and texture.

When the children come back into the nursery they also spend time on observational drawings like pictures of the ducks they saw or create and listen to stories together about “the bear behind the door”. In this way, the experiences of Forest School continue into the classroom environment and serve to hold the children’s attention and motivation.

Interestingly, the freedom of the Forest School does not undermine the National Curriculum. In fact, it appears to enhance it. Many areas of the National Curriculum are intrinsically covered and Forest Schools can contribute to 4 of the 5 outcomes that are part of the government objectives laid out in Every Child Matters as key to wellbeing:

Be healthy
Stay safe
Enjoy and achieve
Make a positive contribution

The Forest School format also echoes Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs. Basic needs make children feel safe and comfortable and ready to learn:

Warmth – correct clothing 
Food – healthy food, for greater nutrition and energy when stopping for a snack 
Drink – hydration when stopping for a hot chocolate 
Safety – positive learning environment

Katherine Milchem notes that, at Eastwood, certain behaviour or frustration seen in the formal classroom is not evident outside. Some children will push others in the classroom but when they are outside they are able to explore and have their own space to run around. Children who are intimidated or shy when asked to speak in front of the class can be seen explaining the rules of a game to the group. Others reluctant to engage with other children in the classroom are motivated in the woodland to interact with others and love playing hide and seek: “Some of the children in our setting have behavioural challenges and other special educational needs and we have seen marked improvements in personal, social and emotional development.”

Urban Forest Schools are possible

Katherine is keen to highlight that urban Forest Schools are possible: “Many seem to think you need to be in the countryside to be able to do Forest School when in actual fact, you don’t. It’s true that finding natural spaces in London can be more challenging but it’s vital that children growing up in the city also have access to learn through nature too. How else are children in the city meant to develop a personal morality towards nature, if they never have access to it in open spaces?”

LINKS  - Eastwood Nursery Centre for Children and Families have started to train other schools in how to set up Forest Schools and have started an Urban Forest School Cluster Group for teachers and practitioners in SW London. This is the first cluster group to be established in London for people who are interested in creating a Forest School.

They are also in the process of building a website for urban Forest Schools as well which will be up and running in April 2009 (  - includes further information on setting up Forest Schools, training and case studies - Bridgwater College pioneered the concept of Forest School in the UK. They offer courses for teachers to become qualified Forest School leaders.  - Forestry Commission provides resources for woodland learning