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  • Jay Gorasia

What Is Forest School and How Can My Autistic Child Benefit From It?

Forest School is a Scandinavian concept developed in the 1950’s and which is still very much alive and relevant today. We spoke to Ms D'Silva, our very own qualified Forest School leader about the highs, lows and overall magic that is Forest School. Here’s what she has to say...

Forest School has an ethos of building relationships and communication by using the natural world/outdoor activities and nature to develop personal, social and emotional skills. I read about the concept in January 2013 and by February had flown to Norway to visit and research Forest School nurseries. By 2014 I had completed my training and Holmewood had its very own Forest School which I ran from 2014-2018 in all weathers, on one occasion being hauled (unceremoniously) in our MPV from a huge snow drift by the farm tractor as the MPV sank deeper into the drift and the kids screamed with laughter.

Some of the benefits of Forest School experience to autistic students include:

  • facilitates healthy physical, social and emotional development and encourages communication, confidence building and strengthening their emotional control, which improves self-awareness and well being

  • Provides a rich sensory experience

  • Helps build a students resilience and self-esteem

  • It has a person centred approach

  • It encourages an interest in nature

  • Students can choose level of social interaction they want - can participate in individual or team activities

Forest School contributes to a child’s growth and development. Existing interventions can be continued in the natural setting and observations from sessions can be shared to deepen understanding of each student.

For our summer term inset day we held a Forest School experience session for staff in the woodlands at our Upper School site in Muswell Hill. As our full team (now a wonderful bunch of 70!) gathered around our pond as the sun shone down on us all on Monday morning, I took a moment to soak in the sight of these smiling, enthusiastic (and now very familiar) faces who come to work everyday and make such a very real difference to the lives of our young people. I felt very lucky to have them all together in the woodland for a few hours with just the birds and the dragonflies for company. It felt as if it was our reward for making it to summer 2021, a time which felt very far away in the depths of lockdown.

We made furniture, picture frames, cooked over an open fire, laughed together and some even made new friends. We foraged for elderflower and made elderflower cordial later that evening. Perhaps we re-connected with nature or maybe even ourselves or just remembered what it felt like to be a child again. Either way, I felt very lucky to have had a few hours in our gorgeous woodland with such lovely folk sharing the magic of Forest School.

Giving young people ownership of their learning helps to make the experience relevant to them and is intrinsically linked to their motivation causing them to be more emotionally involved in the learning process enhancing their learning and enjoyment. Over the last 6 years running Forest School sessions, I certainly know this to be true.

We have had such special memories together over the years: building dens, whittling, making fires, talking about difficult things over mugs of tea, (almost always things they would never tell me in a classroom), cooking, making furniture, herding sheep (worse than cats as it turns out) and a very chilly overnight stay in the yurt with one student telling me at 3am ‘Ms D’Silva, this is almost certainly the worst night of my life.’ ‘I couldn’t agree more’ I thought silently to myself as I shivered in my sleeping bag as the temperature dipped towards freezing. Mugs of tea, bacon rolls and watching lambs being born in the morning seemed to make up for the night in the glorified tent and I was (almost) forgiven.

I would encourage all schools (mainstream, private or special needs) to implement a Forest School approach. It will be hugely beneficial to students and staff alike and will probably be the best initiative that you will ever introduce.

For further information on Forest Schools please see:

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