I've written about Forest Schools previously but I want to give a little update since my knowledge and experience with Forest Schools has grown since living in the UK.
Both of my school-age children go to Forest School once a week. Caspar (11 years) also goes to Forest School Club (an after-school club) once a week. Otto (14 months) has started attending a Forest School toddler class.
Attending Forest School with Otto has been an eye-opener and I've learnt so much about the process. Otto's class is for 1-3 year-olds, so he doesn't play or mix with the other children very much (still at parallel play) but he loves the class; he splashes in the mud, runs around and squeals with delight. We couldn't be happier. So as a Montessori family why have we chosen a Forest School class and what's so good about it? Here are a few things you need to know about Forest School.
Forest Schools are a real thing, it isn't just a playgroup in the woods or bushcraft. Forest School practitioners are trained and accredited. The Forest School Association has 46 registered Forest School Providers in the UK and over 10,000 trained practitioners. Montessori Forest Schools also operate in the UK combining the philosophies of Maria Montessori and Forest School.
Forest School is child-led. I didn't really understand this before. We are not talking about the children just having lessons in a woodlands setting, the whole Forest School philosophy is based on child-led learning. Otto's toddler class is very much like a Montessori toddler class in that there are activities around the environment that he can choose to do, or he can choose to do nothing. There is freedom within limits, he can sit and throw mud, but he can't throw mud at another child, he can run around the woodland but must stay within the marked area. So he chooses what to do and when. For older children, the learning is often project based.
Children learn by doing. Forest School practitioners offer lessons in a similar way to Montessori teachers, they will show the child how to do something and then allow the child to have a go. It is 100% hand on. Activities are age-appropriate meaning the children are always able to participate.
Independence and risk-taking are valued. Both also exist in the Montessori classroom in a very similar way. At Forest School children and given the skills and knowledge to further their independence and to take appropriate risks (also conduct their own risk assessment). Children are taught to use (real) knives and to build and light fires. Children are allowed to climb trees and swing on rope swings, build with branches. Children use real equipment, like wheelbarrows, knives, ropes, nets, pulleys.
There is no wrong way to play. I've been to a lot of toddler classes. I loved our toddler music and gym classes but I was constantly trying to cajole my child into doing the next activity or keep up with the rest of the class. Even with toddler swim classes, I felt the pressure to make my child perform or made them give up toys they wanted to keep playing with. At Forest School, there is no wrong way for the child to play, no toys to give up, no rush, no activity to move onto. At Forest School children can't be too noisy, too loud or move too much!
There is no such thing as bad weather. The only week our Forest School doesn't operate is the week of Christmas. There is shelter if it is raining, and the children layer clothing to stay warm, have warm drinks or huddle around the campfire if it's cold (and it gets cold). Every school we have been to has a weather policy when it's often too cold, too hot or too wet for them to play outside. I love the 'no such thing as bad weather' approach and feel it has the child's interests at heart.
The outdoor environment is everything. I believe children including toddlers are not getting enough outdoor nature play. I see the benefits in my own children. They are calmer, sleep better, make better decisions are more creative and patient when they've had adequate time outdoors, I think there is something to the Forest Bathing approach too. Obviously attending Forest School gives them more time outdoors but it also builds a connection to nature, the children are in close contact with plants and animals but also fire and water.
Forest School has a lot of other benefits that I hadn't thought of previously like strengthening communication skills, fine and gross motor development, early science and maths. It teaches respect for our environment and for each other. I believe that Forest School is suitable and even desirable for Montessori families.
Please note that I am a parent and not trained in the Forest School philosophy, this information is provided on my personal experience only. Forest Schools may vary and I suggest visiting or trying out a local Forest School to form your own opinion.
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