Forest Schools


MBAT is a small school set in Nature. Forest schools provide one model of how to approach work with children in Nature and, in this post, I want to discuss what they have to offer. It is an attempt to clear up a few issues in my own mind about what a Nature school is and how it relates to the other key concept of our school: freedom. How would a Free Nature school fit into the broader global network of ideas about the environment?

I’m going to follow Charles Olson’s advice and let the roots dangle. I do this because I don’t want to impose my culture on you unknowingly. I am English. Forest Schools have become increasingly popular in the UK since the 1990s. The idea is linked to an alternative tradition that goes back through William Morris and the Romantics to the Civil War in the seventeenth-century. There is a link in English culture between freedom and nature, and the woodlands have a special part to play. Think Robin Hood. These are my roots; will they transplant to another culture and geography?

Of course questions about the environment and ecology are not limited to the UK. It is quite possible to build a school based on environmental education without woodland. MBAT is in the UAE, which does not share the English alternative tradition and does not have woodlands. This is the reason I want to write this out. It seems to me that there are some aspects of free, Nature schools that hang on like clods of earth to my roots. I have to decide whether they will survive being transplanted or not.

Forest School Association

The Forest School Association is the largest organization of its type in the UK at the moment. It mostly provides services to state primary schools , so it is not a school as such. There is one near where I grew up. Otterhead is a good example of a Forest School. The trained outdoor activity leaders allow “doing and making” activities which may be forced out of a formal curriculum. Children learn pre-industrial activities: cooking on a fire, working with tools, exploring woodland. The leaders also stimulate the imagination. The staff have a wide range of interests and abilities which they can communicate to the children because they are not bound by a formal structure: it is a child-centred learning environment.

Our unique teaching techniques and engaging outdoor activities vary depending on the student’s age and needs. 

All of our activities are tailored to suit the needs of the individual

Otterhead Forest School

The FSA website says that the idea for their approach comes from Denmark. They have done such a good job of branding that some academics have criticized what other educators do as not being “authentic Forest School.” (You can read an article in the Guardian on the subject here.) It is clear that the idea of giving children these experiences is popular and growing. There is no clear reason why the FSA should have a monopoly on good practice, however, since the idea is older than they admit, as we shall see.

The FSA works with teachers to help them integrate outdoor education into the mainstream and relate it to conventional learning targets. They have set up a nationwide network of “schools” and training centres. Their approach is explicitly “learner-centred”. They do not have a formal curriculum to push, although exploring the natural world will inevitably create content. Have a look at this video:

This is holistic learning. This means that the individual components of the programme are not dictated by a formal scheme of work. They believe that each child will benefit from the experience of contact with nature, all according to their own personalities or preferences, and that this will have knock-on effects on academic work in the classroom.

The Forestry Commission supported research to investigate the effects of this model. You can see the report here. They say that the experience benefits children in the following ways:

  • Confidence: children had the freedom, time and space to learn and demonstrate independence
  • Social skills: children gained increased awareness of the consequences of their actions on peers through team activities such as sharing tools and participating in play
  • Communication: language development was prompted by the children’s sensory experiences
  • Motivation: the woodland tended to fascinate the children and they developed a keenness to participate and the ability to concentrate over longer periods of time
  • Physical skills: these improvements were characterised by the development of physical stamina and gross and fine motor skills
  • Knowledge and understanding: the children developed an interest in the natural surroundings and respect for the environment

This does not make the direct claims for the benefits on numeracy and literacy you can see in the FSA promotional video.

The role of trees in stimulating the imagination is shown in a video made by John Cree, the Director of the FSA:

In this video Cree starts with the imagination and perceptions of the child and only then moves on to learning. This is sentimental in the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth’s Prelude: the “fair seed time” of his childhood; an intimate connection with Nature giving rise to the birth of imagination. It is only later on that Cree relates the experiences children have in the woods to developing skills in the classroom: Language, Maths and Science.

Experiences for Little Kids

The overwhelming sense of the FSA program is that it is designed for young or very young children. This arises directly from the fact that the Danish source is a model of kindergarten education.

There is a problem here. When we design free schools, we have to think about why we are creating them and who they are for. Is a little free woodland activity for kids enough? Will it peg onto the conventional curriculum or will there be a systematic attempt to create an environment that embodies our principles? What happens when children grow up? Do they suddenly lose their interest in Nature? We may be unwittingly giving children the idea that Nature is for tots. The hidden curriculum- that set of assumptions we are only ever dimly aware of- insinuates that Nature is good when you are little, but you grow out of it.

Photo by Caleb Oquendo on

As a curriculum designer and manager it preoccupies me: I see it as equally nonsensical to have a Nature program only for little kids as starting to learn French and then dropping it after a couple of years. It reminds me of a talk I gave for the Asociación de Libre Enseñanza a few years ago. I had been working as a consultant for a few years and was becoming preoccupied by the fact that almost all of the projects were for little kids. “What happens when these children grow?” I asked. Their older kids in the primary free schools seemed a little resentful: they were aware that they were going to be shunted up to a secondary school they were not prepared for. Even the good projects didn’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what happened when children graduated out of their free schools.

This is not an issue for the FSA because it is an add-on to conventional education. MBAT, however, is a Nature school that will include principles of ecological awareness right through. We cannot limit it to an experience for little kids and remain true to the guiding principles of the school.

Moderately child-centred

Leonard and I had the clear feeling that a moderately child-centred primary education was good enough for most kids. We both knew excellent conventional teachers who did remarkable things with 5-9 year-olds. The nut of the problem is in the 9-13 age range: children who have the academic basics and are bursting with creative energy.

We have always felt that the mainstream squanders these energies by relentlessly pushing the formal curriculum. It interrupts children’s developmental narrative by forcing these “veteran kids” to move up to secondary school before they are done with childhood. Many free Nature schools are also guilty of turning a blind eye to the issues. It is easier to get certification as a primary school and free schools shy away from thinking seriously about how they could apply their well-considered principles to older children.

In this project we have the privilege of thinking about the whole developmental range from pre-school to 18. A good curriculum manager looks at the experiences of children in the school and tries to ensure that there is a link-up between different phases. And, in a school like this one, that is driven by principles, we want to see the core principles threading through the school from the beginning to the end. Nature is a core value in the school and we cannot just have it as an add-on for primary school children: it must inform teaching and learning all the way through. Little kids’ experience of Nature must lead into a coherent program that feeds its way into the tougher disciplines of Environmental Science.

So, my feeling about the FSA is that it provides great experiences to children at young ages, but that it doesn’t give a clear enough or consistent enough vision for how to work with these veteran kids. I had to look further back in history to find more promising roots.

The Forest School

The Forest School of Cuthbert Rutter was quite different to the FSA. It was set up in 1929 in Sandy Balls on the edge of the New Forest in the south of England. It is the kind of woodland that might have inspired Shakespeare’s forest of Arden and, far from being new, dates back to William the Conqueror at least. Rutter was the nephew of Ernest Westlake, an innovative thinker in the English dissenting tradition. You can read more about Westlake on the website You can read about Rutter on the Woodlands website.

the ultimate aim is to develop as many as possible of the child’s instincts, faculties and potentialities as are not antagonistic to the society in which he lives.”

Ernest Westlake

Ernest Westlake’s idea in this quotation is reminiscent of A.S. Neill. They were of the same generation, both were pacifists, and they saw the faults in conventional schooling. There is a lot to meditate on in these few words: what school these days would use the word “instincts”? The idea that industrialized society, with its mass education, was doing something inhumane to children was a common theme of the early twentieth-century that also found expression in the Wandervögel, the Hitler Youth, the Boy Scouts and the Little Commonwealth. (I did some investigation on a Galician nationalist youth group a few years ago, which you can read about here.) These were also the years of the development of the Youth Hostel Association.

There are key differences with the FSA, For a start, it was a private school for the children of wealthy parents. It was for children of all ages and had an emphasis on the woodland crafts that “veteran kids” could learn. There was an ambitious formal curriculum, but children were given considerable freedom; the school assumed that children wanted to learn and the exercise of responsibility was one of the ways to succeed in formal learning. It did not try to fit in with the mainstream; it was clearly in opposition to current trends in state and private education. This was not a school that needed to fit in with the National Curriculum, which was a hazy thing in the pre-war years when the Forest School flourished. Rutter devised his own program that aimed to give youngsters a real experience of freedom, self-reliance and personal power.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on

The school ran for ten years before the outbreak of World War II, when it was forced to close due to the conscription of its highly-qualified staff.

The most remarkable feature was woodcraft and survival skills. You might compare it to the Boy Scouts which had a similar method of badges of merit and there is a slight connection between Westlake and Baden Powell. Prior to setting up The Forest School, Westlake set up the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry during the First World War. The first lodge was set up in 1916 at the Quaker school of Sidcot in Somerset. I know this school well and have a friend who taught there for a while. It is nestled in the beautiful Mendip hills with easy access to wood and farmland; the perfect place for this kind of venture.

His intention was to provide a pacifist option to the imperialistic, jingoistic and nationalistic Scouts. He knew Baden Powell and sympathized with some of his intentions but he was a Quaker himself. Quakers are pacifists. It was the second year of the Great War and he wanted to provide an option for youngsters that did not have the militaristic overtones of the Scouts. The crossovers, however, are clear. My father was a Scout. For the Queen’s Medal, he had to swim across a lake keeping a flame alight; this was also one of the graduation “tests” in The Forest School.

The Forest School adopted the OWC system of tests and trials, so that, for example the “Tracker Tree” had to be climbed in order for a child to progress into the Tracker group and there were other tests like the “lone vigil test” in which pupils spent a night in the woods together and wrote an account of their experience in order to advance into an older group.  Other tests were swimming across a lake holding a lighted candle in one’s mouth, and silence tests where you had to remain silent for a whole day.

Children were encouraged to take part in a range of different activities outdoors. It wasn’t child-centred in the same sense as the FSA. The learning wasn’t individualized. The idea of freedom was closer to Summerhill, in the sense that there were teachers teaching subjects but the children had the freedom to go or not to go to the lessons as they wanted.

Westlake believed that the future of mankind depended on educating children to appreciate life through all stages of evolution.  His vision was to create a “Forest School” where people could experience nature at first hand in a natural environment, and so began to encourage camping and woodcraft activities on his land.

Deeper Roots: Seton

The roots of the Rutter and Westlake vision go back into the nineteenth-century. Ernest Thompson Seton was a naturalist, artist and writer who grew up in the UK in a large ship-building family. When disaster struck the family business, his father set off for Canada with his eleven boys in 1866. In his colorful autobiography, Seton describes how his vision of education in the outdoors was affected by his own childhood. He relished being able to use tools as a child on the farm, set himself building challenges, was a close observer of natural life and was often alone. When he grew up he went to live with a tribe of Sioux Indians and learnt their language, sharing knowledge and skills. This experience underlay his foundation of Woodcraft Indians in 1902, an organization that directly influenced Westlake and Rutter. Westlake’s OWC is a direct descendant of Woodcraft Indians.

These roots explain something of the pre-industrial focus of Forest Schools to this day. Seton lived an authentic frontiersman life and felt the benefit of learning how to do and make things for himself. He learnt to trap his own food, build his own cabin, make and repair his own tools, all the while keeping a set of Nature journals that recorded his experiences. He began to see the possible applications of his experiences with other children when his property in Cos Cob suffered a spate of vandalism:

Seton with his Woodcraft Camp

Seton visited the local school and invited the culprits to camp at his estate for a weekend, during which time he told them stories about Native Indians and how they lived and worked in harmony with Nature.  As a result he founded “Woodcraft Indians” in 1902.

Seton set up Woodcraft Indians, which might be considered the progenitor of all Forest Schools. He mixed in a good dollop of his own experiences with a creative acumen in creating a marketable organization for the youngsters of his day. He was a well-known published writer, who specialized in stories about animals, and he used this experience to create the “Birch-Bark Roll.” This was the guiding document for the organization, dividing his “Indians” into different levels and categories. Westlake used this as the basis for his own Order of Woodcraft Chivalry.

Woodcraft Indians would not get past the political correctness commissars today. It is a clear case of cultural appropriation. Seton used his authentic experiences as a frontier naturalist to create an organization that aimed to help young people by teaching them how to be “little Indians.” He appropriated Indian customs, traditions, beliefs and practices in whatever way he thought might be appealing to his kids. It was the translation of authentic frontier experiences into a more urban environment. The tension between the wild life and civilization is evident in his autobiography. At one moment he is in London and then he is in Manitoba; he goes to New York and then escapes again to the wilds. .Seton was self-aware enough to reject an association with Boy Scouts of America, in a manner that is parallel to Westlake’s rejection of Baden Powell, but there are aspects of his vision that are a little troubling.

Seton’s autobiography

Pagan Overtones

Both the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry and Woodcraft Indians are well-described on This website was set up by George Knowles whose website describes his investigations into pagan beliefs, Wicca and magic. Both the OWC and Woodcraft Indians were connected with paganism. Seton explicitly introduced young people to the pagan ideas of the Indians. He was an honorary Grand Chieftain of Westlake’s Order of Woodcraft Chivalry in the UK.

When I mentioned the roots of Forest Schools at the beginning of this post, I was not really aware of this pagan connection. I was thinking more of the Quaker tradition with its roots in the English Revolution of the seventeenth-century, when Diggers and Levellers directly associated freedom of conscience with experience of “God’s Nature.” They had a ditty that went:

When Adam delved and Eve span

Who was then the gentleman?

John Ball, 1381 (precursor to the Diggers)

Common land, forests and wilderness have a strong cultural association with freedom-loving individualists in England. We grow up with stories of Robin Hood. As we grow older we read Shakespeare and see the role that woodlands play in the imagination as well as the economy of the country. It is not all about poking a bonfire with a stick. These are themes that run through English poetry and political thinking.

The pagan connection is not surprising. The woodlands stimulate people into thinking of nature spirits, elves and magic. Seton clearly thought that the Plains Indians had a closer relationship to Nature than the city-dwelling sophisticates to whom he sold his stories. It wasn’t surprising that Westlake, having adopted Seton’s Birch Bark Rolls, would attract people who were interested in this dimension of his idea to the exclusion of the rest.

Westlake died in a car crash in 1922. His son was not able to take over the running of the OWC. I will leave the description of what happened to Knowles:

The role of British Chief of the Order was therefore given to Harry Byngham, a decision that proved to be a disaster.  Byngham was not bent on Christianity or Quakerism, and soon after began promoting paganism and naturism.  He even changed his name to Dion (short for Dionysus) and worshiped the deities Pan and Artemis.

George Knowles

Even now, in our scientific times, it is not uncommon to go into a primary school staff room in the UK and find someone who takes Morris Dancing a little too seriously. There is a strong cultural tradition that links pagan festivities, folklore, teachers and education. I would say it is something to be wary of, but I am not prepared to throw away the individualism that I see in Seton’s life and work lightly.

Dissenting Individualists

Individualism can seem a little old-fashioned. In my last post I said that the human focus of Classical Humanism will not help you in your study of Astrophysics. You might say the same about individualized education and the environment. One of my daughters is an Environmental Scientist and, when she was studying, she quite quickly came to the point where she could laugh at my “backyard science”. That hands-on stuff doesn’t necessarily relate to environmental work. Martha’s work involves large-scale statistical modelling, data-crunching and measurement.

She came at her career by taking arts and languages up to 18, then cramming science to get into university for the degree she wanted. It wasn’t easy. Would she have been better off ditching the Arts earlier and dedicating more of her time to hard science from an earlier age? I guess if you looked at the statistics of who makes the most money and occupies the highest positions in environmental organizations, you might come to that conclusion. However, she came to it through a very English route of dissent. She saw there was something wrong with the world and wanted to do something about it.

Dissent is a structured form of disagreement. It often takes the form of saying no to power. The dissenting tradition in the UK goes back to the English Civil War and the Puritan Revolution. The most radical reformers in that revolution held that Nature belonged to everyone. It should not be parcelled up, fenced in and sold off. Dissenters believed that each individual had a personal relationship with God that was not mediated by rituals, priests or church hierarchy.

The most famous dissenter was the Digger, Gerrard Winstanley. He popped into my head the other day when I was reading a comment by Benjamin Freud, who introduced me to the term “commoning” which he proposed as a response to the environmental crisis. We need to think in terms of the bio-collective, he says. This reminded me of the Diggers who took over common land on St George’s Hill in Surrey in 1649 and planted beans and other vegetables. The common lands were unfarmed lands outside villages and towns. They were used for “common” pasturage. Winstanley had the revolutionary idea that there was no justification for people starving in the name of property.

Martha is not a Digger, though she works the allotment and grows vegetables with her brother, Laurence. They both seem to be able to combine rejection with activity, energy and positive forward movement. In her case the activity includes but is not limited to her work as a scientist. There is a broader sense of feeling that the decisions you make about what you do with your life are important; that life is not just a matter of following the path that is apparently laid down at school.

Her brother, Laurence, would have loved to work with Seton. At the moment he is working and studying, but dedicates his free time to outdoor activities and crafts, swimming in icy lakes like his grandfather and making wicker baskets. They might both read what I write and have a good laugh, but I see them as being true to their roots.

Photo by Rachel Claire on

The question of how to turn this dissenting, hands-on tradition into a modern school in a super modern country such as UAE will have to wait for my next post. I have plenty of ideas, but it will take some work to figure it out in enough detail for it to make any sense. However, the key to the question is to allow children- and especially veteran kids- the freedom to engage in productive activity. We are going to do this by providing activity rooms that will not be tied to the conventional curriculum. If you are interested in seeing how that plan will work out, you will have to wait for the next post.

See you then!

Photo by Flo Maderebner on

Published by Jason Preater

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