The History of Forest School

Forest School is the title used by many educational establishments in the United Kingdom for their outdoor learning activities, generally carried out in a woodland area. Therefore to produce a history of Forest School, one must start with a brief overview of outdoor learning, before it was given the title of Forest School, then move on to its development in Scandinavia before its arrival here in the UK.

Outdoor learning has existed since the beginning of the Human Race, though some may feel due to current media focus that it is a new and modern way of learning and teaching:
“It is tempting to perceive the amazing explosion of activity in the outdoors witnessed in the second half of the twentieth century as a purely contemporary phenomenon coughed up by the times”
(Ogilvie, 2013, p.4).
Do people believe outdoor learning is a new style of education due to the Forest School revolution that began in the United Kingdom at Bridgwater College, Somerset in 1993?

As stated above, Outdoor Learning is not a new phenomenon. Two million years ago, when humans were nomadic and existed as hunter-gatherers, children had to learn how to survive:
“The lesson would have been passed on to the young that an intimate knowledge of the natural environment, of hazards both animate and inanimate, and of the whereabouts of food and water, especially in times of scarcity, was crucial to survival.”
(Ogilvie, 2013, p.8).
(Franz Aberham, date unknown)
As there was, arguably, little “Indoors” at the time, most learning took place outside, and as Ogilvie (2013) goes on to describe, things that we now see as fun and recreational, for example making camp-sites and cooking on camp-fires, were then matters of life or death, making this form of learning imperative for all children. Freddie’s Journey today focuses on a story developed to teach Freddie about the ancient people of the Human Race.

Moving through history to the middle ages, the learning of the practical skills of warfare took place outside:
“The nobles’ pages and squires used the outdoors as a classroom for learning activities designed to fit them for war.”
(Ogilvie, 2013, p. 22)
(“The Unicorn Defends Himself” 1495-1505)
These survival skills were taught outside, as the nomads had taught them a million years before. Schooling at this point had begun to separate, physical skills were being taught outside as mentioned above, but the church had also set up educational establishments in monasteries, here they practiced a more formal approach to learning.

This two-tiered approach to education continued on, with children taking one of two routes of learning, either the formal schools or apprenticeships which were much more hands-on. Arguably the first educational theorist and “The Father of Modern Education” (Pound, 2014, p.4) John Comenius wrote his chief text book the “Orbis Pictus” or the
(Comenius, 1658) 
“Picture of the World” in 1658. As discussed by Sadler (2007) this was a book containing annotated pictures with both native language and Latin translations, thus enhancing children’s learning experiences. This book targeted children learning in schools, yet the vast majority of the book contained pictures taken from nature, validating the theory that learning using the outdoors aids children’s overall learning. 

During the seventeen hundreds, as discussed by Williams Siegfredsen (2012), there appears to have been a shift in regard for the outdoors from assuming it an element to battle, to its offering benefits to health and acknowledgement of the beauty it extended to the beholder. During this time Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) published his book “Emile” (1762), describing his belief that education takes three forms; nature, other men and circumstances. His emphasis on nature’s key role in education, influenced parents, as discussed by Pound (2014), and it may be this inspiration that is responsible for the shift in regard nature received.

Education, by 1836, used a child centred approach. This new theory of education, can be traced to the work of Johann Pestalozzi (1746-1827) which:
“May fairly be regarded as the starting point of modern educational theory and practice”.
(Green & Collie, 1912, p.1).
Pestalozzi (Schoener, 1841)
Pestalozzi’s new approach became the beginning of a new avenue for education. As discussed by Palaiologou (2013) Pestalozzi’s theory focused not on learning by rote but by allowing children to develop through their senses and in a secure emotional environment. Pound (2014) adds that he felt children should be given real experiences of nature; one could assume this is best promoted outside, a theory also promoted by Maria Montessori (1870-1952). Montessori environments have an emphasis on real life scenarios and are influenced heavily by nature:
(Montessori, 1966, p.74d)
“A part of the normalising process is to help the child understand and be comfortable with the things of nature. Working with growing things- planting bulbs, collecting and identifying leaves… - is an important part of the… Montessori environment.”

One may state that Montessori promoted “real-play” over “role-play” and using the natural outdoor environment is inevitably a large part of this. Pace (2014) adds that the Forest School movement has also been influenced by Froebel’s (1782-1852) continuation of Pestalozzi’s theory and his opening of the first kindergarten (children’s garden), an outside playschool for children, in Germany in 1840. Williams-Siegfredsen (2012) believes that SÆren SÆrensen was inspired by this and was therefore led to open his first ‘play and preparatory’ outdoor school in Denmark in1854.  

Credit is also given by Pace (2014) to, Baden-Powell (1857-1941) and his development of the Scout Movement alongside Macmillan (1860-1931) and her creation of outdoor nurseries and:
“Desire to harness the power of nature and the beauty of simplicity (influenced by Froebel…)”
(Pound, 2014, p.32).
Showing the shared view that nature is beneficial to children’s learning and should be harnessed as an educational tool. It is discussed by both Knight (2013) and Williams-Sigfredsen (2012) that educational theorists shifted their approach to educational establishments being outside, due to urbanisation in the nineteenth century and the detrimental effects this had on the children of the time.

(Bullock, 1958)
It was in 1952 that Ella Flatau opened a ‘vandrebÆrnehave’ (wandering kindergarten) in
Denmark, as described by Williams-Siegfredsen (2012), where parents would drop their children, who would then spend the day in the woods and the fields. One may assume that this was the beginning of the ‘Forest School’ movement in Scandinavia. However as Knight (2013) explains, in Scandinavia they do not refer to this form of education as ‘Forest School’ but as ‘skogsbÆrnehaven’ or ‘naturbÆrnehaven’ in Denmark or ‘Skogsmulle’ and ‘Friluftsliv’ in Sweden, interestingly, none of these words translate to the word ‘school’. Further points on the International Perspective will follow 13/10/15 with the release of another blog.

It was in 1993 that teachers from Bridgwater College in Somerset went on a study tour to Denmark and were introduced to the educational concept of children playing outside in woodland. As Knight (2013) discusses, the teachers were so inspired by this concept that they bought it home and started running Forest School sessions in their setting. This provision developed from early years children to those with special needs and on to provide for all students in the college. Pace (2014) adds that Bridgwater Educators started to share their concept in the year 2000 and this has led to the current Forest School movement.

In conclusion, though the concept of Outdoor Learning has been with us since the beginning of the human race, the concept of Forest School is a recent development, heavily influenced by the Scandinavian Outdoor Learning ethos. This in itself has been strongly influenced by many of the well- known educational theorists, starting in the Sixteen Hundreds with Comenius, these theorists all display a sympathy towards child-centred learning and employing the natural resources supplied by our outdoor environment as tools to enhance this learning. 

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