Whenever I mention forest school, whether that be ‘in real life’ or online, I am always met with questions. ‘What do you mean they are outside all day?’ ‘What about when it rains?’ ‘Does she enjoy it?’ ‘Like seriously, outside all day?!‘ You can imagine! So I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, in the hopes that it can be helpful to anyone considering a forest school setting for their child, or just to satisfy the curiosity of anyone else. Darcie has been going to forest school for four months now, and is a third of the way through her time there (sob!), so now seems like a good time to write this. We’re settled in, and we’ve basically got to grips with forest school life – by which I mean the mud – so here I am to spill the beans on what it’s really like to have a child at forest school.
Why we chose a forest school
This ones easy. From the moment that I heard about forest schools, and realised there were a couple local to us, there was no way she was going to be going anywhere other than a forest school. The more I found out about them, the more I fell in love with the idea, and when we went and looked around we were all sold immediately. Darcie has always loved being outdoors. When she was a baby and young toddler she would often get quite overwhelmed by situations, but as soon as she got outside she would be calm. The fresh air just had the most amazing effect on her and although now she doesn’t get so overwhelmed, she is still always her happiest outside. As soon as she was walking, she’d want to have her puddle suit on and just go and potter around in the garden, rain or shine, that was where she wanted to be. I’ve always wanted to encourage this as much as I can – don’t get me wrong we watch lots of telly, she has a tablet and we are every bit a very typical twenty first century family – but I also try to get everyone outside as much as possible.
I’m also horribly aware that she will have to be in a classroom soon (I know, I know we could home school but that really doesn’t feel like the best option for us so a classroom it is!) and once she is there, her time spent outside will be more limited. She’ll be expected to sit down at certain times and stick to a schedule. In my opinion they go to school too young in this country, and especially with Darcie being a May baby, it feels like it’s all coming around too soon. I know she’ll be ready, but where she has friends who will go the year after her, I feel like we’re losing a year. So for that reason I really wanted to choose a preschool setting that was a) outside, and b) as far removed from a ‘classroom’ as possible.
None of this is any shade to anyone who prefers a more traditional setting and likes to start education early. But for me and for her, this all suits us much better.
What is a forest school?
Google can define the forest school ethos much better than me so here it is –
‘It’s an approach that takes a long term sustained approach to outdoor learning. Forest schools seek to encourage, motivate, engage and inspire children through positive outdoor experiences. Forest schools are closely entwined with the concepts of free flow play and learning from play.’
From my experience of Darcie’s particular forest school, the key things I’ve picked up on are as follows:
There is a big emphasis on letting nature lead. Being outside the seasons dictate what the children will learn, or do, or play.
They allow the children to take risks. This is SO important to me, and Darcie’s confidence in her physical abilities has sky rocketed from this in particular.
The children get involved with maintenance of the site. Cutting back brambles, laying a wooden footpath, putting down woodchip.
They’re taught skills such as creating a spark to make a fire, using tools such as saws (with one on one supervision before anyone panics).
For me it’s about going back to basics. Darcie has learnt things that some adults don’t know how to do, let alone most 3 year olds. They are skills that you can’t learn in a classroom. She understands how to use practical tools, knowing the risks involved and has learnt to trust herself to use them safely and to listen carefully to the adult with her. Another thing that I love is that there is no push to learn either. I know that there are three year olds out there who are better at identifying letters than Darcie, or who can even write their name, but I really don’t see the rush. She has her entire school career to get good at those things, so I love that we can make the most of this bit of time first. The skills that she is learning and refining are things that will set her up for life in a different way. Teamwork, helping others, respecting and learning from nature, risk assessment – the list is endless. A big thing I have noticed is that her physical confidence and abilities have improved massively since going to forest school. Like I said earlier she has always been outdoorsy and loves playing outside but things like her judgement of what trees are best to climb, or how to best balance walking along a fallen branch, or judging how far she can jump, steadying herself whilst walking in slippery mud. Those are the sort of skills that you can only really learn in this kind of environment and that can be transferred in so many ways throughout her childhood. She brings home the most adorable little things that she has made too. Like a little gnome she whittled and a necklace made from a wooden disc she has sawed herself and put some string through for me. I cry every time!
The main thing that people really can’t seem to get their head around is the idea that the kids are outside all day, every day, no matter the weather. But it’s really not that much of a big deal. Kids don’t really care about the weather, and if they do it’s mainly because they have heard us moaning about it! So long as they have the right clothes, there’s no issue. At Darcie’s forest school (and I think this would be the same at most forest schools) there is a big Bell Tent which they can go in as they please but it’s rarely used, because the kids know it’s more fun outside. The only weather that would ever close the school would be strong winds, as there would be the risk of trees falling down. In reality our weather in England isn’t that extreme, we like to complain about it as if it is but we really don’t get much snow or scorching heat. The trees in the forest shelter them from a lot of the weather, in the winter they make it warmer than it would be on an open field, and break a lot of the wind. They will also provide shade in the summer. On cold days they will often make a fire and pop popcorn on it, make hot chocolates or toast marshmallows. They roasted chestnuts at Christmas and made mulled apple juice. Tarpaulins are hung between a few of the trees too which provides a bit more shelter so they can still do things like paint on rainy days and they will also be good as extra shade when the weather gets warmer.
I actually think they have the best days when it rains. The small man-made hill turns into a mudslide for them and little and large puddles appear all over the site for them to splash in and play all sorts of water games. They have toy diggers, dumper trucks and wheelbarrows that they use to transport the water around and their imaginations can really run wild.
The layout of a forest school will vary hugely depending so I can only talk about Darcie’s one in particular (which I won’t be naming because it’s nerve wracking enough sending her off into the big wide world without telling everyone on the internet where she is!).
So, our forest school is an enclosed area within a woodland. The site has various free flowing sections, such as a big mud kitchen area, a mud/sand pit with diggers etc, a trapeze, hammock and tyre swing area, arts and crafts, a reading nook, a stage and performance area, a big wooden car carved out of a tree trunk, the list goes on! There are all sorts of activities on offer for them all the time such as a tree with a bucket pulley system which they all love, and a reading area covered by a tarpaulin. They also have new activities set up most days and will do things like bird watching and other nature-lead things. Everything is made from natural resources where possible and they have a big campfire area in the centre of the site with log seats that they all sit on for snack and lunchtime. I wish I could explain just how wonderful it all is, but you probably have to see it to understand.
My main worry when we signed up to forest school was just how many clothes I was going to have to buy for Darcie. But actually it hasn’t been too bad! We are recommended to send them with one or two spare full sets of clothes, and they will quite often all be used. I’ve learnt a lot about waterproofs since becoming a forest school mum, and let’s just say that there is waterproof and then there is forest school waterproof. I’ve bought a lot clothes with the intention of them being used for forest school, only for them to be relegated to the ‘splashing in puddles at home’ pile instead. We’ve found finger less gloves to be the best option as with regular gloves Darcie will just get frustrated at not being able to use her hands properly and take them off. The finger less ones with the mitten option have been a much greater success. The other thing that I will say about clothing is that Darcie does much better having separate waterproofs, such as overalls or trousers and a jacket than with an all in one. The all in ones are great but it’s much easier to use the toilet with separates, and I think they are less restrictive.
As for regular clothes to wear underneath her waterproofs, I buy most of this from charity shops or just use anything that has already been stained at home. Nobody sees these clothes, and they somehow all manage to get muddy, so there really is no point buying anything fancy. Throughout the winter Darcie wears two pairs of trouser, two pairs of socks, two t shirts, a sweatshirt and a hoody underneath her waterproofs. And because she does two days in a row I tend to only wash the truly awful bits after the first day and send her wearing the passable bits again the next day. We all have enough washing to do as it is! I wash her waterproofs as and when they need it but try to limit this as I know that over-washing can make them less waterproof over time. On her feet she just wears regular supermarket wellies but I make sure to get soft lined ones with the drawstring top just to give her that bit of extra warmth.
When I pick her up from forest school I take a big bag with me for all her dirty clothes, then I can strip off the top layers and put them in there until they make their way into the washing machine. I’ve also learnt the hard way that there is no point wearing anything nice to do the school run as somehow, myself, Ernie and the pram all get totally covered in mud every time.
I feel like that’s enough rambling about forest school for one day but I’m sure I’ll do a follow up post to this as her time there goes on. I’m very much looking forward to warmer days and a little less mud in the spring and summer months! The last thing I will say for now is that if you have a forest school local to you, definitely go and have a look before ruling it out. I’m so happy with our decision to send Darcie and I’m positive that she has settled in better than she would have done at a traditional preschool because it’s such an adventure for her every day.
If you have any questions please leave them in a comment or message me over on Instagram and I’ll be sure to answer. I might even do a blog post Q&A in the future.