What is “Holistic Development” and how is it applied in Forest Schools?

Holistic Development is an approach in which one attempts to address all of a child’s development needs at the same time. It is suggested that this approach “leads to a better understanding of why a child behaves in a particular way” and encourages “children’s natural intelligence” and “natural curiosity, love of nature,… sense of responsibility and to problem solve”.

The child as a whole can be explained through the acronym SPICES referring to their Social, Physical, Intellectual, Communication (or Creativity, or Character) and Spiritual needs and development.

It’s basis is in the Holistic Education movement, a “philosophy of education based on the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to the community, to the natural world, and to humanitarian values such as compassion and peace.”

Here, ” the teacher is seen less as person of authority who leads and controls but rather is seen as “a friend, a mentor, a facilitator, or an experienced travelling companion” (Forbes, 1996). Schools [are] seen as places where students and adults work toward a mutual goal. Open and honest communication is expected and differences between people are respected and appreciated. Cooperation is the norm, rather than competition. Thus, many schools incorporating holistic beliefs do not give grades or rewards. The reward of helping one another and growing together is emphasized rather than being placed above one another.”

How is this applied in Forest Schools?

Anne-Marie Medhurst suggests;

This holistic approach is perhaps best seen when applied to a particular activity. In this instance the activity started when the leader silenced the group and led them on a mysterious and circuitous route through the woods to a bush with strands of wool draped over it. This, he explained, was the breath of the Choo- choo people and had been left for the group to create friendship bracelets. The group worked in pairs, helping each other to plait 2 strands of wool and tie them to form a bracelet. They then continued their walk to find the Choo- choo village which they discovered had been destroyed by a dragon. The group was given the task of finding materials to rebuild the village (small shelter building) and the Forest School leader moved around the group encouraging them to talk about who lived in their houses. These stories were then developed and shared with the rest of the group during the celebration of work.
Using the SPICES methodology you can see how all aspects of development were covered by this activity.
Social – supporting others, working collaboratively and in a team, self- esteem, sharing and turn taking, understanding the difference between reality and imaginary play (able to have fun), decision making, negotiation, ability to cope with others using and adapting their stories/ideas.

Physical – movement, gross motor skills, fine motor skills, using different muscle groups.

Intellectual – story telling vocabulary, design and building of structures, imagination, decision making, thinking skills, problem solving, independence.

Communication – creative expression, decision making, eye contact when making friendship bracelet, listening skills, story telling vocabulary, non verbal communication.

Emotional – individual points of view respected, sense of achievement raises self- esteem, empathy and respect of others stories, creative expression, excitement, perseverance, imagination, dealing with emotions through play. Ability to cope with others adapting their ideas and story

Spiritual – beauty of nature, individual points of view and belief, community ethos.

Whereas a Forest School Trainee suggests;

The morning activities were all about the importance of play and how holistic development can be supported. We discussed how we could ensure that a child’s Social, Physical, Intellectual, Communication, Emotional and Spirtual (SPICES) could be promoted through Forest School Play. We agreed that these aspects of development transcended everything we did in our woodland play activities and how with adult support, children would recognise this too.  We discussed Mindfulness and that this naturally occured as we just went around the forest, engaging without threat or fear of time constraints or failure of succeeding in things.  Our pleasure was our own, we could take it from whatever we chose to do, from watching others from taking Risk and Challenge and in Exploration of our Natural Environment. We felt safe and recognised if we as adults could feel this way, imagine how empowering it must be for children.

Leanne relayed stories to us of children who had had life changing moments within the forest, my favourite was that of a young boy (Year 2) who recently on a Spring morning had entered the Forest from a slightly different route and on doing so had been exposed to an area he had never come across before.  Leanne told us how he ran towards her shouting, “Iv’e found it, I’ve found it, I’ve found the Land of Peace”. Recognising his excitement she followed him to a meadow like spot in which Bluebells and Wild Garlic was growing and the bright morning sun was dappling the meadow with its rays, it did indeed look a ‘Land of Peace’. Soon other children ran to see his discovery and shared in his wonderment, For the rest of the morning the children played around the Land of Peace making up stories of the little people that lived there and building them resources they might need. On their return to school news soon spread to other classes and year groups who all wanted to visit this amazing land.  Their teachers soon picked up on this amazing unplanned learning opportunity and in turn each class visited the Land of Peace.  Literacy lessons became more interesting as the younger children wrote stories of the adventures that took place there. Older children wrote pieces of persuasive writing on why people would want to live there.  On the school council the children put forward their desire to preserve this beautiful area of the Forest and to prevent people from trampling the beautiful flowers and herbs that grew wild and free there.  So strong was their determination and appreciation of this special place that the Governors handed over 1500.00 pounds so that the children’s wish for a bridge could be built so that it became a protected area.  All this from one young boys discovery during a play session in Forest School, such is the power of this approach to education.

You will in time look upon your own practice and be able to decide how your activities meet the needs of the whole child.

“What should I do before I start my Forest School Leader’s Course?”

Are you at that point where you are booked onto, or looking to book onto, a Forest School Leader’s Course and now have to wait for it to start? Are you looking for things you can do to help prepare you for the course?

Here are a few tips and activities to help …

Go for a walk in the woods

As if you needed an excuse to get out and enjoy some time in nature, well now you have one. If there is one thing that you can do to prepare yourself for a Forest School Leader’s Course is to get out in the woods.

Forest School Leaders are comfortable outside in all weathers and all seasons. You may already be, but if you haven’t had much opportunity recently, take the time to reacquaint yourself with nature.

Each time you go out pay attention to a different topic or aspect.

We all have our favoured topics.

Mine is tracking.
A walk in the woods for me tends to be an opportunity to explore what animals have walked the same paths as me in the last week or so. My eyes tend to be drawn to animal sign, tracks and scat. It takes a conscious focus for me to look at another aspect of the woods.

There is a story about attention I often tell.
I taught search and rescue for a number of years and one activity we did in the dim and distant past was a scenes of crime walkthrough. On this course we had a well known tracker. He’s taught thousands of trackers across the world, written books and been on TV. Anyway his attention was drawn to a leaf that had been moved – it was lying the wrong way up.

With all his attention on this leaf he completely missed the bloody knife that lay just half a metre away in plain view. And so it is with our attention. We just cannot expect to take everything in.

So when you go out for a walk in the woods concentrate on one specific topic.

It might be naming the different trees you see.

You might like to explore the different fungi.

Or maybe you might look at what other plants you can find.

You could look out for animal tracks and signs.

Or you could listen and spot the different birds.

Alternatively you could just look at yourself. Examine how you change as you walk through the woods. What do you feel? What do you smell and does that have an effect on you? What memories do woods bring?

For those of you who are already teachers, think of how you could use either the environment or the resources you can find in the wood to help support teaching.

What maths can you do in a wood?
What stories could be inspired here?
How much science could be taught in the woods?
What activities could you do to support Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning?

Whether you are a teacher already or not whilst you are out and about in the woods why not look for resources to make things.

Start being creative. Fire your imagination.

Or you could just enjoy your last few walks in the woods before you do start doing all of the above and much more automatically after you’ve started your course?

And welcome to the wonderful world of Forest School Leadership.

Learning Theories and their relevance to Forest School Practice

There are a number of learning theories that have been proposed to explain our ability to learn.

Broadly speaking these can be broken down into a number of different categories. These include;

  • Behaviourism,
  • Cognitivism,
  • Constructivism,
  • Motivational and Humanist Theories, and
  • Modern and Design Theories

A quick preview of these theories and proponents shows that many of them have relevance to how we act and teach in Forest School.

Behaviourism has its origins with Watson, Skinner and Pavlov and looks at how we learn through reward or pain avoidance. Ever used rewards to improve the behaviour of your learners?

Constructivism has its origins with proponents like Piaget, Dewey, Montessori and Kolb. It states that learners construct their own schema or knowledge of the world and that to learn something new involves a disruption of this original world view. “The teacher, therefore, acts as a facilitator who encourages students to discover principles for themselves and to construct knowledge by working answering open-ended questions and solving real-world problems. To do this, a teacher should encourage curiosity and discussion among his/her students as well as promoting their autonomy.” These theories of learning are always popular with Forest School Leaders.

Motivational and Humanist theories of learning include proponents such as Maslow, Goleman, Csikszentmihalyi and Dweck. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs requires no explanations but theories such as Multiple Intelligences, Flow and Mindsets are becoming popular with Forest School Leaders across the globe.

Design Theories, systems thinking, Gamification  in Education and the like all have their proponents and their place in the Forest School Leader’s toolbox of pedagogies.

Ken Bain suggests the best teachers;

have generally cobbled together from their own experiences working with students conceptions of human learning that are remarkably similar to some ideas that have emerged in the research and theoretical literature on cognition, motivation, and human development”

As a Forest School Leader we are used to utilising whatever the natural environment provides, for tools, activities and learning. Learning theories allow you to take a similar approach. Utilise what is available and what works given your learners and the environment.

Research on Forest School Practice

There have been a number of research projects into the effectiveness of Forest Schools, both in the UK and abroad, over the last ten years.

Below are listed a few that are publicly available on the internet.

Blackwell, Sarah (2015) – Impacts of Long Term Forest School Programmes on Children’s Resilience, Confidence and Wellbeing

Mckinnell, Victoria (2015) – How does the Forest School approach support the development of a creative disposition?, School of Education and Professional Development at the University of Huddersfield

Blackwell, Sarah (2015) – Forest Schools Evaluation Report for Secondary Programme, 

Southall, Laura (2014) – Using realistic evaluation to evaluate ‘Forest School’ with young people aged 14-16 with special educational needs. DAppEdPsy thesis, University of Nottingham.

O’Brien, Liz (2011) – Are we creating problems for the future?
Children, young people and the concept of ‘nature deficit disorder’ , Trees and Forests in British Society Conference

Lovell, Rebecca (2009) – An evaluation of physical activity at Forest
School, Doctor of Philosophy Thesis

O’Brien, Liz and Murray, Richard (2007) – Forest School and its impacts on young children: Case studies in Britain

Maynard, Trisha (2007) – Forest Schools in Great Britain:
an initial exploration, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood 

O’Brien, Liz and Murray, Richard (2006) – A marvellous opportunity
for children to learn, Social and Economic Research Group
Forest Research

Massey, Sam (2005) – The benefits of a forest school experience for children in their early years, National Foundation for Education Research

Dillon, Justin et al. (2005) – Engaging and Learning with the Outdoors – The Final Report of the Outdoor Classroom in a Rural Context Action Research Project, National Foundation for Education Research

If you know of others, please use the contact us page to let us know.

If you have research that you wish to freely publish, please get in touch and we can put it online for you.

A History of Forest Schools Around the World and in the UK

Although in recent years the Principles of Forest Schools have been formalised to a greater degree than ever before, there has been a long history of outdoor education and learning in the natural environment.

The history and development of the modern Forest School movement in the UK is told brilliantly in two articles by Jon Cree and Mel McCree in two Horizons articles from 2012. These can be found online using the links below;

A Brief History of Forest School Part 1

A Brief History of Forest School Part 2

The Principles of Forest Schools in the UK

The principles that UK Forest School’s abide by were were first articulated by the Forest School Community in 2002. These were later reviewed in 2011 in a consultation with Forest School networks and practitioners across the UK.

The principles are;

Principle 1: Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit. Planning, adaptation, observations and reviewing are integral elements of Forest School.

• Forest School takes place regularly, ideally at least every other week, with the same group of learners, over an extended period of time, if practicable encompassing the seasons.

• A Forest School programme has a structure which is based on the observations and collaborative work between learners and practitioners. This structure should clearly demonstrate progression of learning.

• The initial sessions of any programme establish physical and behavioural boundaries as well as making initial observations on which to base future programme development.

Principle 2: Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.

• Whilst woodland is the ideal environment for Forest School, many other sites, some with only a few trees, are able to support good Forest School practice.

• The woodland is ideally suited to match the needs of the programme and the learners, providing them with the space and environment in which to explore and discover.

• A Forest School programme constantly monitors its ecological impact and works within a sustainable site management plan agreed between the landowner/ manager, the forest school practitioner and the learners.

• Forest School aims to foster a relationship with nature through regular personal experiences in order to develop long-term, environmentally sustainable attitudes and practices in staff, learners and the wider community.

• Forest School uses natural resources for inspiration, to enable ideas and to encourage intrinsic motivation.

Principle 3: Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners

• Where appropriate, the Forest School leader will aim to link experiences at Forest School to home, work and /or school education

• Forest School programmes aim to develop, where appropriate, the physical, social, cognitive, linguistic, emotional, social and spiritual aspects of the learner.

Principle 4: Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.

• Forest School opportunities are designed to build on an individual’s innate motivation, positive attitudes and/or interests.

• Forest School uses tools and fires only where deemed appropriate to the learners, and dependent on completion of a baseline risk assessment.

• Any Forest School experience follows a Risk–Benefit process managed jointly by the practitioner and learner that is tailored to the developmental stage of the learner.

Principle 5: Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.

• Forest School is led by qualified Forest School practitioners, who are required to hold a minimum of an accredited Level 3 Forest School qualification. Find more information on Forest School qualifications here.

• There is a high ratio of practitioner/adults to learners.

• Practitioners and adults regularly helping at Forest School are subject to relevant checks into their suitability to have prolonged contact with children, young people and vulnerable people.

• Practitioners need to hold an up-to-date first aid qualification, which includes paediatric (if appropriate) and outdoor elements.

• Forest School is backed by relevant working documents, which contain all the policies and procedures required for running Forest School and which establish the roles and responsibilities of staff and volunteers.

• The Forest School leader is a reflective practitioner and sees themselves, therefore, as a learner too.

Principle 6: Forest School uses a range of learner-centred processes to create a community for development and learning

• A learner-centred pedagogical approach is employed by Forest School that is responsive to the needs and interests of learners.

• The Practitioner models the pedagogy, which they promote during their programmes through careful planning, appropriate dialogue and relationship building.

• Play and choice are an integral part of the Forest School learning process, and play is recognised as vital to learning and development at Forest School.

• Forest School provides a stimulus for all learning preferences and dispositions.

• Reflective practice is a feature of each session to ensure learners and practitioners can understand their achievements, develop emotional intelligence and plan for the future.

• Practitioner observation is an important element of Forest School pedagogy. Observations feed into ‘scaffolding’ and tailoring experiences to learning and development at Forest School.


Taken from the Forest School Association website.

New Forest School Leaders’ Website Launched

Welcome to ForestSchoolLeader.com:
The new website for Forest School Leaders Reflections and Resources.

It is planned to add resources on a regular basis to support existing Forest School Leaders, as well as trainees starting out their career in Forest School Leadership.

We will utilise the six principles of Forest School throughout our website; meaning we plan to be a long-term frequent and regular visitor to Forest School subjects, helping to support the development of a relationship between our readers, their learners and the natural environment, promoting the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners, offering our readers the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment, themselves and their learners, helping to continuously maintain and develop our readers’ professional practice and to support our readers to create a range of learner-centred processes helping create a community for development and learning.

We hope you find our website of use, and if you are interested in sharing your thoughts or practices, please contact us.