Theory and practice

The Famly Interview
Jo Skone on Getting Started with Forest Schooling

Getting out in nature lets us give children ownership over their learning environment.
July 15, 2020
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Jo Skone: The 5 key interview takeaways
  • The concept of forest schools aren’t entirely new — it’s more that we’ve just got a name for it. And with the name has come more structure, more formal training, and more surrounding theory. But at its core, forest schooling is about playing outside.
  • Jo believes training and structure is helpful for forest learning, but that we shouldn’t overthink it. The most important thing is the ethos behind it — of giving children an enabling environment, and supporting their learning through play.
  • The challenging part of forest school is modeling the curiosity, energy and play that you want to see in children. Because the approach doesn’t rely as much on certain equipment or curriculum, promoting these core values is key.
  • Don’t underestimate outdoor space that might seem too small, or not green enough. Remember, for the little ones, these spaces seem three times as big.
  • At the end of the day, the most important part of forest schools is giving children ownership. You need to have faith in children to go into nature and explore play, independence, teamwork and personal relationships.

Jo Skone was doing forest schooling before it was forest schooling.

Back then, it was just called getting outside.

Jo is a senior teacher and the forest school leader at Randolph Beresford Early Years Centre, right in the middle of London. When most people think of outdoor learning, they don’t think of central London — but that’s where Jo shines. For over a decade, she’s been a leader in finding ways to bring early learning outside, no matter where we’re at.

I connected with Jo at this year’s Nursery World Show to hear her thoughts on why outdoor learning is right for children, and what’s the best way to do it.

You can take a look at some of the biggest insights from the interview in the clips below, or scroll to the bottom of the page to watch the full 13 minute interview.

What was Jo’s first experience with forest schools?

As an Early Years educator, Jo started taking groups of children to Wimbledon Common 14 years ago. Back then, it was just to go play for the whole day. There wasn’t a framework or a name to it.

Jo points out that forest schools aren’t really “new,” so much as they put a name to the practice of getting outside. She believes that outdoor play naturally facilitates a lot of important skills in children: Exploring risky play, independence, working as a group, and understanding others.

As the concept of forest schooling took off, Jo found others coming to her for guidance. She was soon giving speeches and interviews in England, Scandinavia and North America. “I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I was just doing what I knew was right for children,” she says.

Reflecting on forest schools today

At about the three-minute mark, Jo talks about the forest schools movement today.

As the forest school movement became more formal, Jo saw the risk of overthinking things. She saw a greater focus on check-boxes and hard measurements — structuring forest schooling with great emphasis on planned outings, detailed organisation and lots of chaperones. To her, this doesn’t guarantee good outcomes.

The ethos, she says, is trusting children. It’s about putting children in an enabling outdoor environment, listening to them, and supporting them in whatever drives their interests. That’s what really guarantees good outcomes, she says. It’s a question of whether we should “do” outdoor learning or “be” outdoor learning.

What should we really focus on with forest schools?

Jo believes that her approach of focusing on the ethos of forest schooling is especially valuable with settings that don’t have bountiful access to nature. Urban or semi-urban settings don’t need a rented minibus to get to the countryside. Just getting outside, however you can, is what counts.

Given the demands and expectations already placed on Early Years educators, it’s a lot to ask to pile on a lot of structure and logistics with forest schooling. But Jo doesn’t dismiss the training and planning — she just believes that every educator still needs to learn how to let children lead and be enabled in nature.

Taking the leap in forest schooling

So how does a setting take the leap with forest schooling? Jo gets into that at about the 7:45 mark. First, she’s put out an open invitation to come visit Randolph Beresford, to see how she and her team do forest schooling in the middle of London.

Starting out, she says, should be simple. You don’t need any special training, or hardly any preparation, to take the first steps. Just take the children outside, and see where it goes. Trust them to lead you, and support their learning as it happens.

Expecting challenges of forest schooling

The good thing about forest schooling is it’s not so resource-driven, Jo says. Having worked in Early Years, under different governments, she’s ridden waves of fluctuating funding. And when the money’s there, you get used to having a cracking practice that needs certain costly resources.

Forest schooling doesn’t need any special resources, besides a little nature. But instead, Jo says, it requires teachers to dig deep and find their philosophy, to find what they believe in. This isn’t easy, because you have to model everything you want the children to be. You want them to be fun and playful, curious and engaged, reflecting, adventurous and creative — so you’ve got to bring that to your setting every day.

How to implement the EYFS Early Learning Goals in outdoor learning

Just after the 10-minute mark, Jo talks about how she uses the EYFS Early Learning Goals as a guide for forest schooling. She’s careful to put the children’s experiences before the learning goals.

In her view, Early Years educators should look for how children’s actions could be described with Early Learning Goals criteria, instead of shaping activities to meet the criteria. If children are playing and deeply engaged, they’re going to be learning, she says — you can check whichever box you think classifies it best.

What should you look for in an outdoor learning space?

When Jo first got started in forest learning, she was looking for most people’s idea of an outdoor space — lots of leafy greenery, wide open expanses and all that.

But reflecting on the meaning of “natural world”, she realised that meant something else for children in central London. For them, the city is their natural world. Jo learned to find nature within the city, and embrace smaller urban green spaces like the nursery garden and local parks. She also found ways to bring nature into the city, shipping in topsoil, wood chips and logs for her garden.

At the end of the day, Jo says outdoor learning requires us to rely on that Early Years sense of creativity and resourcefulness. Don’t underestimate the spaces you have to work with — and remember that to the little ones, any space seems three times bigger. There’s more space, more wonder, more possibility in spaces that us grown-ups might disregard. The most important thing for children in outdoor learning, Jo says, is to give them ownership.

The full Jo Skone interview

Here’s the full interview with Jo Skone, where she and I discuss:

  • Her own first experiences with forest schooling, before it had a name.
  • What children get from nature that you can’t quite find in a classroom.
  • How forest schooling has become more formal and structured in recent years.
  • The core objectives beneath all the training, philosophy and structure.
  • What you need, and what you don’t need, to do forest schooling.
  • Why forest schooling asks that we place more trust in ourselves, and in children.
  • How forest schooling can be challenging for educators.
  • How the the EYFS Early Learning Goals fit into all this, and how educators should use them.
  • Why the definition of “natural world” should change depending on where we are.
  • What to look for in an outdoor space to use with children.
  • How children experience their natural surroundings, and what’s enabling and exciting.
  • Why the most important thing is giving children ownership of their space and learning.

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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