Katie Kennedy from the Lost Woods project team visits our Forest School Leader course to see how the first stage of training is going.

It’s gloriously sunny on Chailey Common, near Lewes, when I join the Lost Woods Forest School leader training course for a morning. Ten Sussex-based teachers, nursery practitioners, and group leaders are being trained thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

We each carry some Forest School kit and wind our way through the well-trodden paths until we reach a small patch of woodland on the edge of the Common.

Whilst people chatter, course trainers Renzo and Natasha each pick up two sticks and start tapping them together melodically, changing the tempo from time to time. The trainees quickly form a circle around them and soon they’re all tapping along with their own sticks in unison. The welcome ritual is a playful form of mindfulness that brings the group acutely into the present moment, as they watch and listen closely to keep in time with the beat. It takes little imagination to realise how easily you could capture children’s attention with this magical and musical start to the day.

It’s day three of the trainees’ first course module, and there’s a sense of keenness and infectious enthusiasm in the air. Course trainer and Wilder Learning Manager Renzo checks-in with the group to ask how they’re feeling this morning.

Secondary school Science teacher Lucie says: “When I got home last night I just realised that I felt so relaxed, just from spending the whole day in nature.”  

Another trainee says: “I was just so excited on my way here thinking what are we going to do, learn, and create today?”

Setting up camp

The group is tasked to set up ‘camp’ for the day’s activities.  An area of woodland is quickly transformed into a Forest School setting as the trainees move large logs to create a seating circle for the group. A handwashing area is erected between a couple of tree trunks using string and recycled milk bottles, and some woodworking stations are created.

Lastly, a fire is built, and a bucket of water and fire blanket are put out nearby (the trainees are being taught how to safely deliver the ‘riskier’ activities).  In total it takes less than 15 minutes to create the base camp using only natural or recycled materials. The group will leave no trace in this wooded habitat when they dismantle the camp at the end of the day.  

Renzo explains that this exercise also shows the trainees how to engage children in creating the Forest School setting. He says: “Building base camp is a Forest School activity in its own right.  Children learn teamwork and responsibility when they are given the autonomy to put their own camp together.”  

Forest School is no ordinary classroom.

Trainee Lucie gets the campfire going

What exactly is Forest School?

You’d be forgiven for assuming Forest School is about teaching children survival skills, and whilst they do try out some bush craft, it’s in fact an approach to learning which is focused on child development.

The Forest School initiative in the UK has its roots in the Scandinavian model of play and outdoor learning.  It is booming in popularity and not only do children love it, but teachers are seeing real benefits which are now being backed up by research.

Sessions are often run in smaller groups than the average classroom size, usually a maximum of 15 children.  Through six to ten regular sessions (although ideally more), children visit an outdoor setting to take part in a diverse range of practical activities, guided by a qualified Forest School leader.  

Children learn about their natural environment, how to protect local wildlife, try their hand at safe fire lighting and management skills, cooking, woodcraft activities using simple hand tools, art or sculpture, and den building.  

Children try out making hot drinks and campfire cooking in Forest School sessions

In school settings, the activities are closely linked to the curriculum, but children rarely realise this as they are encouraged to play and develop ideas at their own pace.  

Teaching children to safely use tools and light fire

The Lost Woods Forest School leader trainees have a lot to learn this week as they get to grips with using woodworking tools that they may have never even picked up before, as well as learning how to teach children how to safely use these tools.

Already this week they’ve learned how to cut firewood, build shelters using tarps, create 3D maps on the woodland floor, and craft their own wooden name discs.

Sarah learns how to split logs using a mallet and an axe. This is something the trainees could teach to the children who attend their future Forest School sessions.

Trainee Sarah, who runs her own therapeutic gardening business and also works with primary-school aged children, tells me: “We’re being shown how to use tools exactly in the way we need to show the children how to do it.”

Renzo talks trainees through how to split logs with an axe and a mallet. Everything from the precise angle in which people must stand when using the mallet and the way in which someone kneels means that the activity can be delivered safely.

Lighting a fire is another essential skill, along with teaching children how to stay safe and move responsibly around the fire, which is described as a ‘dragon’ to the children.  To light a fire, the trainees are shown how to make sparks using a Swedish fire steel which ignites a piece of char cloth (burnt cotton) resting on a clam shell.  Children can then tip the cloth from the shell onto the kindling to star the fire.    

Outdoor learning benefits

Renzo calls everyone back from practical activities to look over their upcoming coursework.

He talks to the group about the importance of having a holistic approach to learning, it’s one of the core principles of Forest School.  A child is observed as an individual, so that leaders can appreciate their learning style.

For children who find traditional classroom environments and teaching styles challenging, Forest School can be transformative to their learning experience. Renzo says: "In forest school we create a friendly and welcoming culture- we welcome everyone, we’re accepting, and we listen."

As the group discuss the beneficial learning outcomes from Forest School activities, it’s hard not be impressed.

They mention emotional growth, social skills, resilience, problem-solving, increased knowledge of the natural world, improved stamina, better coordination and dexterity, maths skills, design skills, and communication and listening skills.

The cost of training is one barrier that many schools face in setting up Forest Schools, which is why support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to make this training happen has been so appreciated by the course participants.

Teaching benefits

It’s not only children who are benefiting from Forest School.  Renzo says since the Sussex Wildlife Trust started the Forest School programme in 2006, they regularly receive feedback about the benefits inside the classroom too.  Teachers report that the day after Forest School sessions, children are more focused and calmer.

They’ve also heard from teachers who have reported that they feel a greater sense of work satisfaction from becoming Forest School leaders.

One teacher told the Sussex Wildlife Trust that the training had “reignited his love of teaching”.  

Thank you to our trainers and trainees

As the Forest School Leader trainees continue their learning over the coming months, we want to say a huge thanks for getting involved.  

We’ll be catching up with some of them in the Autumn to see how they’ve found putting their training into practice – and crucially, what the children think of their efforts!

If you’re inspired to find out more about Forest School, visit our project partner the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s website.