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Exploring the History of Forest Schools in the UK: Origins, Development, and Beyond

The concept of Forest School, an innovative educational approach deeply intertwined with nature, has evolved significantly over the years. Rooted in the early 20th century, its tendrils have spread globally, offering a unique blend of environmental education and personal development.

The Scandinavian Beginnings

The seed of the Forest School concept was sown in Scandinavia in the 1950s. The Danish 'Skovbørnehave' or Forest Kindergarten was revolutionary, prioritising outdoor play and learning in preschool settings. In the post-World War II period, urban areas in Denmark, as in much of Europe, were densely populated and industrialised. The rapid urban expansion led to cramped living conditions, with concrete replacing green spaces. Children, in particular, found themselves distanced from the natural world, their play areas often limited to structured, sterile urban playgrounds. This disconnection from nature was increasingly viewed not just as an aesthetic loss but as a fundamental health and developmental concern for children.

'Skovbørnehave' emerged as an antidote to this problem. The philosophy was simple yet profound: children are inherently curious, and nature provides the richest environment for learning and development. The Forest Kindergarten wasn't just about moving the classroom outdoors; it was about reconceptualising the very essence of early childhood education. The focus was on outdoor play and learning, where the forest provided an ever-changing, stimulating backdrop for exploration, creativity, and physical activity.

In these settings, children would spend their days in the woods, regardless of weather conditions, embodying the Scandinavian motto "There is no bad weather, only bad clothing." This immersion in nature from an early age was seen as crucial for fostering a strong sense of environmental stewardship and respect for natural resources, values deeply embedded in Scandinavian culture.

Moreover, the structure of the day in a 'Skovbørnehave' was markedly different from that of a traditional preschool. Instead of a rigorous schedule, the rhythm of the day was dictated more by natural cycles and children's interests. Activities were child-led rather than adult-directed, allowing children the freedom to explore, learn, and grow at their own pace. The role of the educator was redefined from being a teacher to a facilitator, guiding the children in their exploration, ensuring safety, and subtly weaving in educational moments into their natural play.

This pioneering approach resonated strongly with the innate human affinity for nature, a concept known as 'biophilia.' The benefits were apparent, as studies and observations noted significant improvements in children's physical health, social development, and emotional well-being.

Forest School's Journey to the UK

The journey of the Forest School concept in the UK began with an insightful visit in 1993, when a group of nursery nurses traveled from the UK to Denmark. This visit was aimed at understanding the structure and philosophy of the Danish 'Skovbørnehave' or Forest Kindergarten. The delegation sought to observe and learn from this nature-based educational model.

After returning, these nursery nurses became advocates for integrating this approach into the British educational system. Recognising the UK's potential for outdoor education due to its natural landscapes and tradition of outdoor activities, they saw an opportunity for significant educational enhancement.

The initiation of these ideas into structured programs started in the early 1990s. Bridgwater College in Somerset took a leading role by introducing the first Forest School qualification in 1993. This course was crucial in providing a structured framework for the Forest School concept, marking the beginning of its formal integration into the UK's educational system.

The ethos championed by Bridgwater College and other early adopters of Forest Schools in the UK focused on holistic development, understanding that children's growth encompasses intellectual, emotional, social, and physical aspects. It also emphasised resilience, encouraging children to face challenges and learn from nature and peer interactions. Furthermore, it promoted a respect for the environment, aiming to instill conservation and sustainable living values from an early age.

This philosophy influenced institutions like Greenways Forest School, which not only adopted but also adapted the Forest School concept to fit the UK's unique ecological and educational context. They've been crucial in promoting the Forest School as a dynamic community of practice rather than just an educational model.

In summary, the 1993 visit to Denmark and the subsequent actions by Bridgwater College and others marked the start of integrating the Forest School concept into the UK's educational system. This shift towards a more holistic, nature-based, and child-centered approach to learning continues to guide educational practices across the UK, including the ethos of Greenways Forest School.

The Expansion and Recognition

The recent growth of Forest Schooling in the UK has been exponential. Educational institutions across the nation began to recognise the profound impact of this approach on various aspects of children's development. Studies and anecdotal evidence pointed towards significant improvements in children's physical well-being, social skills, independence, and overall mental health. Moreover, the emphasis on environmental stewardship and sustainable living resonated with the growing global consciousness about environmental issues.

This recognition was not confined to alternative or progressive educational circles alone. Mainstream schools and larger educational bodies began to explore and integrate elements of the Forest School ethos into their curricula. This integration was a testament to the versatility and adaptability of the Forest School principles, proving that they could enhance traditional educational settings, offering students diverse learning experiences.

The establishment of the Forest School Association in 2012 marked a milestone in the movement's history. This organisation served as a central body to uphold the integrity and quality of Forest School practices. It provided a structured framework for training, resources, and support for practitioners, ensuring that the core principles of Forest School were maintained and that the delivery of programs met high standards. The Association also facilitated a network for professionals to share insights, strategies, and research, fostering a community of continuous learning and development.

The influence of the Forest School movement extended beyond individual institutions to impact broader educational policies and strategies. Policymakers and educational theorists began to acknowledge the value of outdoor learning, not just as a complement to traditional classroom education but as an essential component of holistic development. This shift in perspective led to more inclusive policies, recognising the diverse needs and learning styles of children and advocating for education systems that support the physical, emotional, and environmental well-being of students.

In essence, the Forest School movement's growth was characterised by a deepening of its impact and an expansion of its reach. It brought about a paradigm shift in understanding education, emphasising the importance of nature, experiential learning, and child-centred approaches. As it continues to evolve, the movement not only enriches the lives of individual students but also shapes a more holistic, inclusive, and environmentally conscious approach to education at a systemic level.

Moving Forward: The Evolving Legacy

The narrative of Forest Schools continues to unfold, marked by a commitment to growth, innovation, and a profound respect for nature. This evolving journey sees Forest Schools not just as static entities but as dynamic, living communities that adapt, respond, and contribute to the changing educational, social, and environmental landscapes.

In the UK, the Forest School movement is branching out in new directions, responding to contemporary challenges and opportunities. Schools are increasingly incorporating mindfulness, mental health awareness, and sustainability into their curricula, recognising the interdependence of these elements with holistic education. The concept of outdoor learning is gaining momentum, with initiatives to integrate Forest School principles across different educational stages, from early years to secondary education. This evolution reflects a deeper understanding of the lifelong benefits of a strong connection with nature.

Beyond the UK, the narrative of resilience and innovation in Forest Schools is evident in international collaborations, research, and cross-cultural exchanges. Global networks and partnerships are facilitating the sharing of best practices, research findings, and pedagogical strategies, enriching the Forest School ethos with diverse perspectives and experiences. This global dialogue enhances the quality and depth of programs, ensuring that they remain relevant, impactful, and responsive to the needs of children and communities around the world.

The ongoing journey of Forest Schools is a testament to the enduring power of nature as a context for learning and development. It's a narrative that continues to inspire, challenge, and evolve, driven by a community of educators, parents, and children who believe in the transformative power of the natural world. As this journey unfolds, the promise of Forest Schools remains as vital as ever – to foster resilient, innovative, and environmentally conscious individuals, deeply connected to the natural world and equipped to navigate and contribute to the world of tomorrow.



1. [The Origin of Forest School in Denmark](

2. [Forest School Association - History of Forest School](

4. [The Forest School Foundation - Background Information & History](


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