The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Elizabeth Holmes

Outdoor learning and Forest School – enhancing experiences at school

What is Forest School? Elizabeth Holmes discusses establishing a Forest School and the benefits that come with it.

What if we knew that spending time outside in the natural world contributed positively to our sense of health and overall wellbeing? Would that impact how we teach children to maximise their learning potential by harnessing that sense of wellbeing?

A growing body of research tells a story of the need for us to take our nature connectedness far more seriously if we are to improve our ability to thrive in the context in which we find ourselves.

Forest school is an experiential educational approach developed in the UK in 1993 and inspired by the Scandinavian approach to education. According to the Forest School Association, it is governed by some key features and principles.

  • It is run by qualified level three 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 vital to enabling the scaffolding of the learning.
  • Care for the natural world is integrated.

It is a strategy for 2030 that has been informed by ‘young people, sustainability and climate change experts, and sector experts.'

Value for all

Marina Robb, Director of The Outdoor Teacher and Circle of Life Rediscovery and co-author of The Essential Guide to Forest School and Nature Pedagogy, sees the immense benefits of enabling children to learn outside. She explained, ‘This approach builds agency, autonomy, and motivation. It develops physical skills, emotional awareness, critical thinking, and a deeper relational understanding.’

Taking children outside to learn in nature has value for all involved. As Robb explained, ‘Outdoor learning is embodied and experiential learning. It’s a way of learning that responds to all aspects of growth and teaches us to enjoy parts of our lived experience.

'As an ethos, Forest School celebrates the connection to self, others and the natural world and gives us time to integrate and follow what we most need from time spent outdoors. It promotes a way of teaching that is respectful of the individual and the relationship and takes care of the adult, not to dominate the agenda, but observe and listen to what is needed.’

If you would like to establish a Forest School for the pupils in your school, Robb suggests some key strategies to try.

She explained, ‘Firstly, they need to have the support of senior management as effective Forest Schools need to be given the time, space, and resources to support children and staff’s wellbeing. I suggest training at least two staff in Forest School level three training. Make sure the school thinks ahead to provide at least two hours per week at Forest School for half a class.’

World-leading vision

Taking children outside to learn in nature has value for all involved.

The government published a sustainability and climate change strategy for the education and children’s services systems on 21 April 2022. It brings together short, medium, and longer-term actions designed to ‘enable us to progress towards achieving our four strategic aims and overarching vision.’ It is a strategy for 2030 that has been informed by ‘young people, sustainability and climate change experts, and sector experts.’

With aims of excellence in education and skills for a changing world, net zero, resilient to climate change, and a better environment for future generations, there are five key action areas in the sustainability policy paper:

  1. climate education
  2. green skills and careers
  3. education estate and digital infrastructure
  4. operations and supply chains
  5. international.

The next steps towards this vision of the UK as a world-leading education sector in sustainability and climate change, as detailed in the policy paper, are:

  • an annual climate literacy survey for school leavers is to be introduced in 2022
  • a published risk assessment of flood, overheating, and water scarcity of the education estate reviewed on an annual basis from 2023
  • biodiversity of the education estate baselined by 2023 to allow annual progress reporting
  • on-site emissions from the education estate, baselined by 2024, and progress against national targets published from 2025 onwards.

One way of harnessing the myriad benefits of learning outside is via the Outdoor Learning Award. This offers a framework of eight benchmarks of practical strategies for taking learning outdoors.

Schools can work towards these benchmarks to help ensure that learning takes place outside, regularly, across the curriculum. It also allows schools to engage parents and staff in outdoor education and will help ensure that staff get the skills they need to use outdoor learning effectively.

In some schools, this may require a wholescale culture change, while for others, already on the pathway to improving their outdoor learning, this could be a nudge in the right direction.

Clear steps for enhancement

There are eight benchmarks of best practice that make up the Outdoor Learning Award framework.

  1. Promote positive attitudes around outdoor learning.
  2. Make room in the curriculum for outdoor learning.
  3. Offer a range of extracurricular outdoor learning opportunities.
  4. Use outdoor space and resources effectively.
  5. Ensure the safe use of outdoor space and resources.
  6. Provide staff with training opportunities for outdoor learning.
  7. Ensure pupils are involved and engaged with outdoor learning.
  8. Engage parents with outdoor learning.  

The environmental awareness that can come from high-quality outdoor education, such as a well-run Forest School programme, can effectively feed children’s wellbeing, and understanding of the climate emergency and the need for schools to act.

Being in the natural world, understanding nature in the spaces where you live and work, and developing a notion of stewardship are vital parts of our education and development. And now, there are clear steps we can take to enhance our offer. 

Outdoor Learning Award

Promote positive attitudes around outdoor learning and ensure pupils are involved and engaged. 

See what the benefits and impact on undertaking the Outdoor Learning Award would have on your school.

Download the framework.


Similar Posts

Tom Fay

The homework debate

Tom Fay delves into the polarising realm of homework in education. The debate weighs the benefits against potential pitfalls, exploring issues such as student overload, social inequality and technology's evolving impact on learning. The conversation about homework is one of the most polarising in...
Gareth D Morewood

Securing parental collaboration for pupils with SEND

Gareth Morewood emphasises the enduring importance of true co-production and collaboration with families to improve outcomes for pupils with SEND. He explores how to actively engage families and young people, working in concert to identify challenges to secure better outcomes. When it comes to SEND...
Joanna Feast

Where do you stand on the back-to-school spectrum? 

Going back to school evokes a spectrum of emotions. Joanna Feast offers some essential tips for a successful academic year ahead. Perhaps you're excited about the prospect of shiny new stationery, a new class or timetable, getting to know different people, new routines and settings. Maybe you're...