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Forest School Association conference 2019: Play and community

The Forest School Association conference is a yearly event held at a different location across the country every year. It is a full weekend event which brings together Forest School practitioners from all over the country to one place to share good practice, explore new ideas and to build relationships within the wider Forest School community. As you can imagine it's less like a conference in the traditional sense and more of a festival with campfire food, lots of waterproofs, headtorches, pockets of sweet chestnuts, sloe gin and a chance to catch up with old friends and put faces to those you may have networked with online. We really recommend attending to all of our new Forest School leaders and trainees!

This year we were asked to lead a workshop to a group of leaders and chose the topic 'The Value of Forest School and Forest School Inspired play in Fostering Healthy Attachment between Children and Caregivers.'

We led the session twice to around 30 Forest School leaders with vastly different backgrounds and experiences, from those just embarking on their training through to directors of the FSA. This was perfect for us as we love to explore topics as a group of learners, us leading the way and learning as much from them as they do from us. So this is what we explored and what we found out...

We began our exploration by discussing Bowlby and Ainsworth's theories of attachment. Bowlby explored the importance of attachment in early life and how it forms the basis of all of our future social relationships. He described 4 different patterns of attachment, all of which we see frequently at Forest School;

Proximity Maintenance - The desire to be near the people we are attached to.

Safe Haven - Returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of a fear or threat.

Secure Base - The attachment figure acts as a base of security from which the child can explore the surrounding environment.

Separation Distress - Anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure.

You can read more about attachment theory here

Why is this important? As a group we explored attachment theory and the importance of attachment for children early in their lives. Evidence says that children with strong attachments, as adults...

Have trusting, lasting relationships

Tend to have good self-esteem

Are comfortable sharing feelings with partners and friends

Seek out social support

So, if we all agree that attachment is important, how can we use Forest School to foster attachment between children and their caregivers, or even other adults that attend their sessions every week?

We suggest that one of the many ways we can do this is by teaching parents, caregivers and other adults in the woods about child development. Perhaps if people understood the way their children were behaving and exploring then they would give them more space and time to explore in a developmentally appropriate way. If we understood their actions then we would be more likely to meet their developmental needs, thus fostering attachment.

We put forward an image familiar to most parents - a baby in a highchair repeatedly throwing their food on the floor. The parents instinct is to stop them, assume baby doesn't want to eat any more, remove them from the highchair and move onto the next task. We would argue that the baby is actually fulfilling an 'urge' to throw food on the floor, otherwise known as a 'schema'. I will write a more in depth blog post on schema play in the outdoors soon going further in depth. They are viewed as patterns of repeated behaviours - developing and strengthening cognitive structures in the brain. How we make sense of the world. They are natural, uncontrollable and necessary. We all gave examples in Forest School where we see children repeat behaviours. These can be categorised into;











As children get older this moves to symbolic representation, then functional dependency (able to connect together how to get the right thing for the right job) and then abstract thought.

We asked the group to collect natural open ended resources from the ground around them and then added a range of other open ended resources - string, wood cookies, cups, rope, pieces of cloth and we then explored what the children might do with them to meet each schema. The leaders were able to come up with fantastic examples they have seen in their own settings. For many the idea of schemas was new, for some they use them every day, but we all agreed that if parents and caregivers understood why their children repeated these behaviours they would be better able to meet their needs and, in turn, foster stronger attachment. We explored how Forest School, being child led and with the riches of natural open ended resources around and no clean floor to worry about, was the perfect place to allow child led play and exploration and how important this really is.

So we all agreed that attachment was important, that by using our role as leaders to educate parents and other caregivers about child development we could help them meet children's needs and foster attachment. We posed some big questions about what happens if we do not give children time to play, if they move into adulthood with unmet schemas. Do adults then explore them when they are older, is that the cause of what we often call 'antisocial behaviour'? Young adults throwing bottles of bridges, is that just an unmet trajectory schema? We don't have the answers but it's something interesting to explore.

As part of Forest School Leader training all level 3 leaders will have learnt about Maslow's hierarchy of needs ( and the importance of the hierarchy in Forest School. We recapped how Forest School meets the needs starting at the bottom of the triangle with food, warm clothing, toileting etc, how once we have this we provide a safe environment which allows for appropriate risk taking and exploration. We then asked how we get from safety and security all the way to the top of the pyramid to self actualisation, or what we refer to as 'living your best life'. We argue that to get there the most important part of the pyramid is 'love and belonging', a place where you feel loved, have attachment with caregivers, feel connected to others around you as well as the place you are in, in Forest School terms we often call this 'community'. We can only get this by offering long term programmes with the same people, in the same place and at on a frequent regular basis. In other words...

'Principle 1: Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit. Planning, adaptation, observations and reviewing are integral elements of Forest School.'

How do we develop community in Forest School beyond same people, same place, every week? We share food around the fire, we form attachments with children other than our own so that it becomes a safe place for parents and caregivers as well, we support risk taking, we support each other with appropriate praise and encouragement, we immerse ourselves in play and exploration, we share both physically and emotionally. This is the power in long term programmes, this is the power of Forest School.

We asked our group a big question - if we feel like we belong somewhere and understand what it truly means to be part of a community, will we be more involved with wider communities now and when we are older? Does this have an impact on lifelong mental health? Does it have an impact on peoples desire to be part of social change?

Connecting it all together. We argue that knowledge and understanding of how children learn and giving them space to play leads to stronger attachment, this then allows the learners to build a community which, in turn, leads on to greater community involvement outside of Forest School. We conclude that Forest School, when given the time to be long term and learner initiated, fosters stronger community involvement and participation.

We had a wonderful time delivering this exploration workshop at the FSA conference this year and are already thinking about what we might look to explore next year if we are lucky enough to be asked again. We met some truly fantastic and inspirational practitioners and learnt so much to influence or own practice. Let's be honest, we never had so much fun eating curry under our hoods in the pouring rain unable to see the person we were talking to. We laughed, a lot, we smiled about how lucky we are to be part of this incredible wider community of people who dedicate their careers to building little communities in the woods.

Mega thanks to Lily Horseman from Kindling Play and Training ( for her wonderful doodles of the workshop.

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