Hope in Nature

Forest School Assoc

We are delighted that Sarah Lawfull, Forest School Association Director, has written an article for us on how Forest School is connecting younger generations with nature and even the world of forestry. We hope that you enjoy reading her piece.


‘If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.’

Rachel Carson – A Sense of Wonder

‘How many of you were ever children? Close your eyes for just a moment and remember where you loved to play. Remember the sounds, the smells, the feelings…’ Chances are, some of those places have been built on or ploughed up. People need houses and they need food.

When I ask this question at conferences or training courses, many adults call to mind gardens, fields, roads, railway sidings, woodlands and parks. They identify freedom, adventure, mishap and learning how to get along in life as direct outcomes of their playful, often risky, connection with other children and the natural world.

They quickly note that few children today have these experiences.

Five years ago, there was outrage in the media that nature words were being lost from a children’s dictionary. The beautiful Lost Words book resulted, and public campaigns ran to fund copies of it for schools. For many people this was something of a wake-up call, the realisation that generations of children have become disconnected from nature. The reasons for this gradual removal of children from nature are complex. The results have become obvious.

HSE chair Judith Hackitt, quoted in the Telegraph (2012), said: “Health and safety laws are often wrongly cited as a reason to deny children opportunities, contributing to a cotton wool culture.” Play England, ROSPA and many other watchdogs have championed the basic need of children for adventurous play so that they are able to keep themselves safe and learn effectively.

There is hope. At Forest School this week there will be people, young and old, exploring the natural world, learning to navigate the ups and downs of life as they struggle with climbing to the next branch, persevering to light a fire in the rain, learning to tie a new knot and secure their shelter, compromising on the design of a woodland den.

Nothing beats the delight of sharing the moment of a fledgling learning to fly or watching an urban fox slink through the undergrowth as a ‘giggle of children’ reaches the Forest School site. The invitation to lay on the ground and witness the quiet, wiggling, shiny path of a centipede’s hasty escape under a log is truly enchanting. Hearing the sharp intake of breath that accompanies someone’s fist sighting of woodland butterflies dancing in a clearing never ceases to thrill me. This is one of the deepest joys of facilitating nature connection.

Opportunities for ‘epic adventure’, sometimes requiring bravery and a willingness to try something new or physically challenging, is an important element of children learning that ‘discomfort’ may be OK and sometimes reaps huge rewards. I have walked long distances, into the woods with three year olds, on days when the rain comes down in sheets. Not a whimper from any of them. Used to playing outdoors, whatever the weather. Toddlers exhibit ‘grit and determination’ when learning to walk. Somehow, we steal this away. Forest School offers a multitude of ways to rekindle this quality, even in the most reluctant teenager or anxious adult.

The value of long term nature connection for mental health and well-being has been reported on by Natural England and is the subject of exciting research studies into the outcomes of Forest School, such as the Hare and the Tortoise and the  Breeze Project. A deepening understanding of the value of trees for the health of the planet alongside the health of people has led to many tree-planting projects around the globe. Understanding the complexity of woodland ecology and learning to care for trees is a core aspect of quality Forest School.

Together, the Forest School community is seeking ways to educate adults, provide children and young people with the richly playful, challenging learning afforded by access to wild, natural woodland spaces whilst promoting the well-being of woods and people. The important contribution of Forest School to our nation’s ecological awareness and well-being of children and young people is recognised in the Government’s 25-year environment plan.

Forest School is a holistic, nurturing, learner-centred approach building on our rich heritage of woodland history, bush craft, environmental education and adventurous outdoor learning across cultures and through time. It is an innovative approach, using ancient wisdom. Over the last quarter of a century these ideas have grown as a grass roots movement until the ethos and principles, first agreed by the Forest School community in 2002, were adopted by the fledgling Forest School Association in Autumn 2012. Eight years on, this national professional body has become the voice of UK wide Forest School and the governing body for qualifications, with the aim of promoting best practice, cohesion and quality Forest School for All. We support Forest School movements in Ireland, Canada, USA and China through training and collaborative initiatives.

The Forest School Association is a founder member of the Forest Education Network whose 2019 conference ‘Putting the Forestry Back into Forest Education’ provided a valuable opportunity for practitioners and landowners to learn together. 2020 will be a year of great challenge as scientists, governments and businesses seek to find ways of mitigating the damage we are doing to our planet. In October, Oxfordshire will welcome Forest School practitioners to the national Forest School Association conference, ‘Climate of Hope: Sustainable Forest School’, ahead of Glasgow welcoming thousands of world leaders to COP26.

Forest School offers a hopeful, holistic answer to the eco-anxiety of us all. Children, young people, families and inter-generational communities are taking action, planting trees, caring for nature because as we play together in woodland sites, through the seasons, we learn that we belong together.



‘No-one will protect what they don’t care about, and no one will care about what they have never experienced.’

Sir David Attenborough