Forest School for Health and Wellbeing

Kathryn Barton, the Community Education Officer at Kent Wildlife Trust, writes about engaging young people with nature at an early age to influence their attitude towards the outdoors in later life, and remarks that it has positive effects on both their physical and mental health.

Forest School is an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults, regular opportunities to achieve, be active and develop confidence through hands-on activities in a woodland environment.

Schools and organised groups visit Kent Wildlife Trust’s woodland nature reserves where they take part in fun, exciting activities, such as building shelters, making fires and using a range of hand tools.

True Forest School is a long term process, working with a group over a number of weeks and months, building skills, knowledge and confidence.

Forest School has been around in the UK since 1995, following the Scandinavian model where a high proportion of children’s learning takes place outside, especially in the early years.

Recently developed Forest School sites include nature reserves at Sevenoaks and Bough Beech, near Ide Hill.

Spending time outdoors in nature has a really positive effect on health and wellbeing and woodlands are nature’s playgrounds, providing an ideal setting for education and recreation, with trees to climb and space to explore, play and run around. Forest School is a great way to encourage children to become more active, especially if they don’t engage in more traditional sports.

Exciting opportunities are offered for the development of practical skills in a wild, outdoor setting, enhancing personal, social and emotional outcomes. Forest School can also support subjects covered in class, taking traditional classroom learning outdoors.

Many of the skills learned at Forest School are transferable, such as working well in a team, listening to and having respect for others and learning how to be aware of and minimise risks.
With the rise in UK obesity levels, cooking on the fire provides a great opportunity to learn about healthy eating and to try different foods.

Sessions take place all year round and learners discover how they can be comfortable outdoors in all weathers. In cold and wet weather, it’s important to wear plenty of layers, to have good waterproofs, to keep active and have hot drinks.

Whilst in hot weather sun cream, sun hats and drinking plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration are key points. Again, these are important life lessons to take away and use in other situations.
After spending time in the woods, children often ask their parents and families to do more things outdoors, together.

One boy, from a primary school, who was overweight and spent most of his time indoors, now goes out cycling regularly with his father, getting fresh air and exercise as well as the benefit of spending quality time with his dad.

Another child struggled with anything physical at her first Forest School session, finding it really difficult to climb over a stile. Her fitness levels and confidence increased over a number of weeks, enabling her to join in with activities, play with her friends and conquer that daunting stile.

Kathryn Barton is Kent Wildlife Trust’s Community Education Officer, leading the Forest School project. She says: “Engaging young people with nature at an early age influences their attitudes to nature and the outdoors in later life and has positive effects on both physical and mental health”.

“Schools are benefiting from funding from the government’s levy on soft drinks, known as the sugar tax, with money available to improve health, fitness and wellbeing.”

Schools are benefitting from funding from the government’s levy on soft drinks, with money available to improve health, fitness and wellbeing.

In addition to naturally encouraging higher levels of activity and showing improvements in physical and mental health, the Forest School process is such a flexible system that it can be tailored to include more activities to produce even greater healthy outcomes, so this funding can be used for Forest School programmes, which can be especially beneficial for children who struggle with more traditional team sports and activities.

Kent Wildlife Trust has been delivering Forest School since 2012, initially at a beautiful ancient woodland site near Canterbury, and now at recently developed Forest School sites within the nature reserves at Sevenoaks and Bough Beech, near Ide Hill.

They are also delivering sessions for a project around Sevenoaks Greensands Commons, a cluster of wild spaces in Sevenoaks, with the aim to conserve them, improve habitats and access and encourage more people to use these green spaces.

Each site has its own particular atmosphere and characteristics where children are able to explore and become comfortable in their environment.

Kathryn Barton continued: “But Forest School doesn’t have to be just for children. Kent Wildlife Trust offers opportunities, based on Forest School principles, to people of all ages – from nursery to pensioners – with Family Forest Skills events, adult workshops and programmes, workshops for teaching staff and student teachers and Corporate Wellbeing events.”

“Family Forest Skills days are fantastic for getting the family out in the fresh air, working together on fun activities in a wild but safe environment.”

“Fun is a key aspect of Kent Wildlife Trust’s outdoor education provision and everybody performs better when they are doing something they enjoy. Just being outdoors in nature can lift the spirits and improve mental health and if outdoor activities are also fun, people are much more likely to try them again or progress to other outdoor activities and sports.”

Kent Wildlife Trust is the leading wildlife conservation charity for Kent and Medway. Since its formation in 1958 they have worked to make Kent a better place for both wildlife and people.
They manage four visitor centres and 60 nature reserves covering 7,500 acres, and are supported by over 31,000 members and around 1,000 registered volunteers.

For more information about Kent Wildlife Trust’s Forest School project, please contact: Kathryn Barton, Community Education Officer, Forest School either on the phone 07717 367944 or email her at forestschool@kentwildlife.org.uk. You can also visit the Kent Wildlife Trust’s website at www.kentwildlifetrust.org.uk.