Zion Lights, Home educator and writer, discusses her experience of Exeter Forest School, a not-for-profit social enterprise that focuses on outdoor learning.

The school was founded in 2012 by Chris White, Tom Lowday and Shevek Pring.  Their aim was simple – to bring the outdoors to young children, but they rapidly expanded into catering for all ages including adults.  The Forest School began as a series of fortnightly ‘Saturday Clubs’ for children as a way of getting them into natural outdoor learning, and the attendance and feedback from these events was so positive that six months later the School was running sessions six days a week.  At present Exeter Forest School has two leaders but there are two more in training and the School now also offers Forest School leadership training to people who want to get involved.  Following feedback from adults who have attended birthday parties and other Forest School events with their children, Exeter Forest School has set up sessions for adults including leadership training days and outdoor learning activities.

I took my two year old daughter to the Tree Tots Toddler group run by Exeter Forest School, and the positive benefits were immediately visible.  Most children my daughter’s age attend playgroups which are indoors, rely on plastic toys and a fair amount of what we call ‘bouncing off the walls’.  At Exeter Forest School the children remain naturally calm without the walls to hem them in, as they are free to run wild and explore at leisure. The fact that children are calmer in natural surroundings and in green spaces is fairly well known now but what is not as widely discussed is the impact of free and risky outdoor play.

Every activity at Forest School has to be considered for Risk Benefit Assessment which involves weighing up the risks of an activity against future benefits.  The tendency in indoor classrooms with limited space may be to focus on immediate problems that lead to avoiding risky activities, but at Forest School the more risky ventures are perceived as important because they develop essential long-term skills and are also fun.

A professor at Queen Maud University in Norway has identified six categories of risks that attract children in their play.  These are: great heights, rough and tumble, fast speeds, dangerous tools, dangerous elements, and disappearing/getting lost.  Exeter Forest School fosters all of these types of outdoor play, with space for children to run wild in, to go at great speed, fall over, and to hide from others. Forest School leaders also encourage children to climb to great heights (trees and constructed apparatus) sensibly and supervise children with the use of dangerous tools and around campfires.

According to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, there are many reasons for encouraging risky outdoor play, as ‘imposing too many restrictions on children’s outdoor risky play hinders their development’ and there is a strong case for allowing risks so that children are able to learn to learn to manage them with no or minimal adult intervention.  For example, fire is something we are taught to keep our children away from but there is much to be learned to do with personal and group risk and responsibility when there is a fire burning in the middle of a group setting.  Despite there being as many as eight young children at one Tree Tots session, none of them have been harmed by the fire and nor do parents need to reprimand them to keep them away. They tend to approach the fire carefully and therefore feel the heat that warns them to keep away from the flames.

Attending a regular Forest School group is not just about getting a child into a green space for two hours a week.  My daughter and I go to the local park almost every day, but the lawn there is mowed, there are few bugs in the grass, and children there rarely climb the trees.  Even though it is a green outdoor space with trees in it, it has a ‘tame’ feel to it, which is the complete opposite to the setting for Tree Tots Toddlers, which is situated in a natural woodland on Shillingford Organic Farm.  In this setting my daughter is free to explore the natural surroundings, wallow in mud, get wet and dirty with other children, discover insects and fungi, climb trees or the rope apparatus on the site, or wander off for some alone time whenever she wants to.  She also has the option of joining in with the other children and doing activities, and does so without any coercion from me.

At the Tree Tots group I have watched children go from being shy city-dwellers with a fear of loud roads and fast cars to confident rural explorers who thrive on wild time.  One activity my daughter has really enjoyed at Forest School is sawing tree branches to make wind instruments, which is something I would never have thought of exposing her to and nor do I have the confidence to do it with her at home.  Using woodworking tools we have made dream-catchers and tree decorations, other musical instruments, created mud paintings with mostly natural materials found in our immediate environment, and contributed to the creation of a den made entirely of wood from the forest floor.  We have also had picnics, looked at bugs through magnifying glasses and listened to stories around the fire while toasting marshmallows.

What didn’t work and how this was resolved

The Tree Tot Toddler sessions combine a range of simple activities for the children, most of which involve the helping hand of a parent or guardian.  There is no rigidity to the sessions and this helps to maintain the calm atmosphere, as activities are not rushed and are fluid depending on variables such as the weather and what the children are interested in doing.  For example, if children are clearly getting peckish then all activities stop to sit around the fire and eat together.  There is a loose structure – each session begins and ends with a song by Forest School leader Chris White, through his companion puppet Freddy the Fox – but the lack of a tightly regimented timetable is deliberate.

This is because a major mistake Exeter Forest School made in its early days was attempting to stick to tightly structured sessions with, for example, one hour of an activity followed by another hour of a different activity.  The Forest School leaders found that this didn’t work well with children in the toddler sessions or the older groups, so they decided to follow the lead of the learners instead.  The School then naturally evolved into having a child-led, more fluid approach to learning and Chris says that the leaders had to re-organise their own ideas of structured learning in order to produce the now free-flowing, loose structure of the group that works so well for the children and adults involved. Just as free play is valued at the School so too is an element of freedom to live in the moment, and in Chris’s words ‘you never know what’s going to happen next’.

Although my daughter and I do plenty of craft and ‘messy’ activities at home and in groups around our city, I’m sure she is aware that mum is keeping an eye on the paint splashing on the carpet and watching out for when the glue goes too close to little lips and so on.  Outdoors at the Forest School’s Tree Tot Toddlers sessions I have no such worries, as mess only seems natural and Chris is clearly at home leading us in this environment.  I relax more, and I’m sure my daughter is aware of this which helps her to relax more too. If there’s one thing educators can do to help foster learning in children of all ages, it is to reduce the amount of stress in the classroom, and involving risky play and a natural setting can certainly help to do this.  The other parents also seem visibly relaxed as they can allow their toddlers to crawl off to chew twigs and watch squirrels, with experienced leaders around to oversee any potentially risky activities.

Exeter Forest School has been so successful over the last two years in pleasing children and parents alike that the founders are now thinking of creating a kindergarten forest school nursery and teaching their skills to foreign language students.  As Chris White says, ‘there is no cap on how far Forest School can delve into our existing education system’, which perhaps sums up something essential about the way our children engage with learning – the sky should be the limit. For the Tree Tot Toddlers it certainly is.

More information is available from Zion Lights,  Exeter Forest School and Risky Play and Children’s Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development.

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This article was first published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education (Vol. 107).  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.