An increasingly prevalent education practice globally, forest school education initially gained enormous popularity throughout western and northern Europe, the US and beyond, from the early 1990s, and has exploded in popularity in more recent times across Asia, in countries such as South Korea and Singapore in particular. Perhaps more surprisingly though, forest schools are now increasingly emerging within existing mainstream schools and early years settings in the United Arab Emirates.
Viewed by skeptics as a fad or trend in education, the UK’s Forest School Association attributes the rise in popularity of forest schools to a need for an alternative to the currently prevalent results-driven, standardised education model of the UK (a rationale that could be attributed more broadly across the globe). We explore how the UAE’s forest school providers are delivering this pedagogical approach in a desert and urban environment, and seek to understand the source of the spark that has fuelled the UAE’s emerging passion for forest schools.
What exactly is a forest school?
Forest school education is the practice or education model of using outdoor natural spaces for students to learn technical, personal and social skills. While this approach is often used with children in the early years and lower primary, its benefits extend to students of all ages. Forest school education often includes a higher adult to child ratio than other education models, with trained skilled practitioners, to enable students to participate safely in higher risk activities, such as lighting fires, using sharp tools and navigating natural environments. UAE-based outdoor education consultant and trainer, Clair Watson, explained some of its benefits:
“For young children the benefits of connecting with nature and learning in the outdoors enables them to learn though authentic life experiences in the real world, engaging their senses and heightening their observation skills. The forest school approach also supports young children in learning the consequences of their actions as they help each other to overcome obstacles, building confidence in the shyest of children. Forest environments also create a sense of calm and wellbeing giving children a break from our overstimulating, technological world, which in turn provides many mental and physical health benefits. ”
A number of associations have formed to guide forest school practice since the 1980s, with the UK’s Forest School Association (FCA) perhaps having the broadest influence internationally. The FCA provides key principles that shape and govern the forest school ethos, which include the need for a natural environment, having qualified practitioners, and promoting the holistic development of all involved. Forest school education is inherently learner-led, encouraging curiosity and exploration, with practitioners filling the role of guides or facilitators.
Forest schools in the UAE
Evidently, there is a major environmental obstacle in running a forest school in the UAE. However, the distinct absence of forest land has not held back the movement from laying down roots even in the sand. Education giant, GEMS Education, has three Dubai schools under its umbrella currently offering forest school-style sessions to its pupils: FirstPoint School, Wellington Academy DSO and Metropole School. Sunmarke School and Kings School Dubai have, likewise, developed mini forest school environments within their gates, Brighton College Al Ain has developed, as far as it (and we) are aware, the first and only “desert school” programme in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, and Kangaroo Kids Nursery Dubai is enthusiastically extending its early years forest school offering.
Lewis Miller, Head of Outdoor Learning, explained that GEMS Wellington Academy DSO has included forest school practice as part of the curriculum since 2013. From small beginnings, the school has developed its provision considerably:
“In the early years of our Forest School department, we focused solely on the Foundation Stage. We provided our youngest students with natural play spaces by using play-based learning theories and forest school principles to define the programme. It soon became apparent, though, that there was a need for all our students to have natural play spaces where they could collaborate, gain confidence, understand risk and generally do what children do best, which is play and get dirty.
Although the school does not have a space that could make claim to resembling a forest in any way, it has made efforts to develop a natural environment that lends itself to supporting the development of outdoor practical skills and providing nature-based experiences. Mr Lewis explained that as children progress through the school, they have opportunities to participate in more challenging forest school activities:
“As we move further up the school, we still use play-based learning to develop critical thinking and playful intelligence, but we also focus on core outdoor skills. In Years 1-6 we work on woodcraft and tool work skills, campfire skills, safely lighting tinder using ferro rod, safely extinguishing a fire; shelter building and rope work.”
We spoke to Samantha Priestner, Forest School Lead at Sunmarke School. Sunmarke’s Forest School is a more recent initiative, having fully taken shape a year ago, after Ms Priestner, an experienced forest school practitioner, noted a longing from the early years children to experience more outdoor learning:
“We had a space outside, not a forest but a collection of trees, and I started using it with the children. They loved it, and soon children from other classes started asking to take part too. I began running sessions for all the early years classes and quite quickly, we could see that the forest school day was becoming the children’s favourite day to come to school.”
Ms Priestner told us that the success of her initiative led to the creation of her current role, in which she focuses solely on leading the Forest School, training and supporting teachers, planning opportunities for the children and leading sessions in the school’s mini forest. Despite being a new initiative in the school, Sunmarke’s forest school is one of the boldest in the UAE currently. Ms Priestner explained that she does not shy away from forest school sessions that contain an element of risk; quite on the contrary, she recognises that children in the UAE have a real need to develop skills in risk assessment and independence. She provided an example of how this works:
“Our youngest children start by using a potato peeler. First of all, they learn to whittle a carrot, which is manageable for young children who are developing their muscles and their fine motor skills. We want them to be successful, but also develop the habit of perseverance. We focus on technique; they know they have to wear a glove to protect their hand, to move the peeler away from their body, and hold their carrot in a particular way. We put these safety techniques in place because we eventually want our children to move on to safely use knife to carve into wood.”
Ms Priestner explained that developing children’s knowledge of the natural world is also a significant part of Sunmarke’s forest school offering. While the school’s mini forest was not initially home to a wide range of creatures, the team has taken steps to attract insects and wildlife:
“We quickly realised we would have to encourage nature. We made bird feeders and bug hotels, and so the range of insects and birds started to develop. It’s so amazing to see the children excitedly identifying a bird or a beetle. We have geckos and lizards and the children love to point out the difference. We now have stick insects and caterpillars, and recently found a chrysalis. Can you imagine the children’s amazement when they found it?”
Similarly, the team at Kangaroo Kids Nursery in Dubai began their forest school journey in an effort to tap into the potential benefits of their outdoor green space, and found that the forest school principles were very much aligned with their child-led approach to early childhood education. Nursery Principal, Laura Barton-Toyne, told us:
“We have an incredibly expansive outdoor space and wanted to introduce an area in which the children can truly connect with nature and greenery, even in amongst the skyscrapers in the city of Dubai.”
While the range of forest school activities that are suitable for such young children are somewhat limited, Ms Barton-Toyne explained that there is still considerable benefit for the children in simple nature-based play:
“Our forest school does not include fire practice or large tools as you may find in UK-based forest school practice, but we have set up a pretend fire pit area where the children enjoy huddling together to share interesting stories, and we have included teepees to create the same cosy atmosphere felt when camping. We have a wide variety of sensory exploration areas and conduct activities within the forest school to support nature-based play.”
For Brighton College Al Ain, it has been a case of making lemonade with the lemons life has given them, or rather making a “desert school” with the naturally stunning desert landscape of the UAE. A forest it is not, but this school has instead embraced its natural surroundings and utilised it with the same forest school principles in mind, to create a ‘Desert Discovery‘. Deputy Head and Early Years Lead, Kerry Lynch, explained more:
“Our environments around the school are set up to be calm and purposeful using natural materials, and embracing and reflecting what we naturally have around us. We are passionate about children having hands-on learning experiences, with the teacher’s role being one of a guide and supporter, encouraging children to explore, ask questions and investigate.”
Ms Lynch continued:
“One of the wonderful things about forest school is that every child is able to flourish – there isn’t a sole focus on academic learning and the children are completely free to explore and lead their own learning. It encourages independence and builds confidence and we often see children who rarely speak in a classroom situation blossom into little chatterboxes.”
GEMS FirstPoint School has taken a similar approach, developing a ‘desert school’ environment that it utilised using the forest school principles. Isobel Olley, Assistant Principal, told us more:
“Our children from FS1 through to Year 4 have a designated weekly slot within our desert school environment. Through our desert school, we aim to nurture learner-led exploration and discovery. Our children have the opportunity to be creative, challenged and adventurous with the freedom, time and space to learn and demonstrate their independence.”
A passing phase or here to stay?
While the forest school model, and nature-based outdoor learning more generally, has been slowly gaining popularity for some time in the UAE, the current focus on child wellbeing in education, and the losses felt as a result of the pandemic, appear to have given this approach an extra boost, or rather, has created an apparent urgency in its need. Emily Smith, Head of Infant School at GEMS Metropole School shared her thoughts:
“Post-Covid, we noticed that the children’s levels of wellbeing and involvement were lower than we would normally expect, likewise their creativity levels in independent play.”
Ms Smith went on to explain the benefits she has observed from forest school, in light of this:
“In all year groups, we have seen vocabulary being extended, confidence levels increase and achievement levels go up. Most of all, we have happy children who are excited to come to school every day and spend time in our natural environment.”
Samantha Priestner, Forest School Leader at Sunmarke School, echoed this observation of children’s development when schools re-opened post-Covid:
“When we got our children into the forest, I was quite shocked by some of their physical abilities, for example their core strength. Young children are typically able to squat down, with a mixing bowl for example, and have that be a comfortable sitting position, but I’d quite often see children stumbling or rolling.”
Ms Priestner went on to explain that the physical elements of forest school, such as tree climbing, den building, whittling etc, has helped children in developing in these areas. She also made reference to a broader issue in the modern age; the possible negative effects of technology:
“Children often really struggle with slowing down. Perhaps this is because of the nature of the technology they are exposed to, being used to instant results. In our sessions, we see that children will expect to instantly find a beetle, for example, and it doesn’t work like that. I explain to them that magical things are happening all around us, we need to slow down and you will find wonderful interesting things.”
While the benefits of forest school practice are well documented as being extensive, is this something that can realistically be offered more broadly across UAE schools, given the environmental challenges faced? Outdoor education consultant and trainer, Clair Watson, believes that not only is it achievable, it is also needed:
“Implementing a pure forest school is challenging in the UAE but not impossible. There are clear obstacles and limitations, such as access to suitable spaces, timetabling and differing attitudes to risk, but schools and nurseries can adapt the forest school philosophy, provide hybrid models such as forest-beach schools and forest-desert schools. City-based children in particular have a great need to connect to nature, and experience the many benefits that forest school has to offer.”