A message to all those promoting outdoor learning

Wyre forest school fire steelThis weekend saw the launch of the Forest School Association, a new national body for those working in UK Forest School settings. I have agreed to be the patron of this new body. Sadly I was not able to be at the event in person. At the Association’s invitation, I passed on a message of support, which I thought may be of wider interest:

I am very honoured to be asked to be the patron of the first national association for those working to take forward the Forest School movement. I first heard about Forest School back in the early 2000s, and have been a big fan ever since.

Not that I needed much persuading. As someone who in the 1970s, I roamed freely throughout the large village and countryside where I grew up. So I have vivid memories of the times I spent with my friends in the woods and fields. We scoured rotting tree stumps searching for devil’s coach horse beetles and toads. We gathered horse chestnuts for playground conker tournaments. We picked rosehips and squirted out the insides to rub into each others’ backs as itching powder (though it never seemed very itchy to me).

I am sure many of you have similar memories. I do not doubt that – like me – many of you do what you do because you believe that children today deserve experiences that share some of the magical qualities of everyday adventures like these.

But just what are those magical qualities, and why are such experiences so universal, and so resonant? In my view, there are two reasons. First, they speak of the richness and boundless fascination of the natural world. No matter how humdrum or familiar it may seem to adult eyes, almost any green outdoor space holds mystery and wonder, and invites exploration and investigation, when experienced through children’s fresher, less stultified senses.

The second reason is our lifelong appetite for experience and autonomy. From the earliest age, we human beings have a deep hunger to get to grips with the world around us; to feel a sense of our own agency, of our competences, and of our ability to control our fate.

Thanks to Richard Louv and others, there is growing awareness of the fact that nature is disappearing from children’s lives, and indeed it is the focus for a thriving global movement. The fact that autonomy, freedom and a sense of responsibility are also disappearing from children’s lives is far less well recognized. To see this, just look at the tortuous health and safety tangles that many schools get into in the playground and on school trips.

For me, the potential of Forest School is built on two vital foundation stones: the intrinsic qualities of natural places, and the intrinsic motivations and learning impulses of children. If Forest School is to leave a lasting impression on the lives of the children and young people who experience it, these two need equal emphasis.

This is why I would like to make one plea to everyone here. When your new association gets locked into the minutiae of debates about definitions, and principles, and accreditation, and awards – as it inevitably will – do not forget to revisit those childhood memories. Remember the places you played when you were young, and the things you did there. Remind yourself that at its heart, what Forest School is about is allowing children the space and time to experience the everyday wonders of nature, and to feel what it means to be human.

I look forward to following and cheering on the work of the Association, and I am happy to do whatever I can to help take the organisation forward.

[Editorial note: the Association’s full name – decided after the event – was added to this article on 11 September 2012.]

14 responses to “A message to all those promoting outdoor learning

  1. Hi Tim, After my Blog condeming Nature Deficit Disorder and extoling the virtues of freedom, I am really pleased to read this and quite relieved to feel so very much in tune with all that you have said here, even though I do think that woodlice, greenfly, slugs and snails, not to mention the odd dandelion, Alder or Buddlia are all to be found in the urban environment too!

  2. Great news – good luck with it all!

  3. Pingback: A message to all those promoting outdoor learning from Tim Gill | I love my world - natural outdoor play | Scoop.it

  4. This is really good news – I’m pleased to hear that you are the patron as this is testimony to the good work you have done over the years which has supported and enabled Forest School practitioners to go forth and promote their own excellent work. In fact I think that’s how I discovered you – via the publications you wrote for the Forestry Commission on “Design Guidance for Play Spaces” and “Growing Adventure”.

    Also I think it is a sign of the times and testimony to the global awakening about how play in natural places and spaces (even in urban settings) is fundamentally important to children’s well-being and development. A noticeable change from the “eco” experts which would have been drafted in a couple of decades ago.


  5. Great to read Tim, especially your plea / reminder. It’s so easy to over think things…
    You are always warmly welcome to visit our Forest School nursery (www.freerangers.org.uk)
    When my motivation takes a knock, I often read your blog posts to re-invigorate myself and the team; thank you.
    Charlotte Lucas

  6. I wish all schools could have a touch of the forest about them. I feel privileged that my younger daughter was so lucky to be able to have a term of forest school sessions at her nursery (it wasn’t a real forest, just a creative use of a run down corner of the site). It is one of her favourite nursery memories. Today she is indignant because the head of her school has replaced their worn plot of earth (trampled plants and bare ground with a few small trees…site for hiding treasure under stones and finding worms) with synthetic grass…today she has told me there are blue splodges in the green.

  7. Thanks Tim am so pleased we have you as a patron, you have been both an inspiration and support for forest school practitioners enabling them to enable their learners to take natural risks in the natural world whether it bein a woodland/copse! in a rural landscape or one in an urban space. I visited a FS in the middle of Sandwell today and one child put it so clearly – I can BE ME here in the trees!
    As the new chair of the association just to let all know who read tims blog there will be a decision on the name by the end of this week.

  8. Robin, Catherine, Juliet, Charlotte, Rachel, Jon – thanks for the warm words!

  9. It’s great to hear that in the time of austerity that forest schools are still being promoted. However, there needs to be work done on how best to implement a forest school curriculum beyond foundation stage and key stage one, without impacting on summative testing by removing time from the curriculum. The case needs to be made in a way that headteachers understand, that forest schools need to be utilised across the curriculum and the entire educational age range. This especially important with a new proposed curriculum on the table.


    • I absolutely agree with the above comment! All very inspiring… good luck with it all!

      • I agree catherine however I do feel the curriculum and assesment practises in education in the UK need a radical overhaul so that things like FS can be accomodated and integrated in our ed system – Guy Claxton certainly has much to say on this issue if we are to free up our education system to be more learner focussed!

  10. Pingback: Forest Schools – A new emphasis? | Beyond The Textbooks

  11. Pingback: A message to all those promoting outdoor learning | singlemomontherun

  12. Pingback: Crowdfunded campaign aims to give every child access to forest schools | Rethinking Childhood

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