There is no ‘absolute’ when setting up a forest school site from scratch. Forest School learning and play activities can take place in a real forest, a natural woodland or a more cultivated garden space close by the school.
Many authentic Scandinavian FS sites, like the original Kindergartens (German trans = Children’s Garden) resemble the average domestic garden. There is a framework of trees and shrubs, grassy space, some hard surface, a shed or sheltered building, plus flowers and other decorative features. Of course, any natural woodland/forest can be used for FS activities too.
The overarching concept being that children require regular connections to Mother Nature to form positive lifelong associations with the natural world; and the practical skills advocated in forest school learning provide a confident foundation for diverse lifelong learning.
Where to set up a forest school?
A well-placed Forest School (FS) site will become a much loved and well used part of the school. If incorrectly placed – it will be neglected. Before choosing the site, it is important to consider first:
Access and practicalities:
Is it easy to get to the site? How long will it take to get everyone there?
Playing fields and sports pitches often mean that FS sites will be further away from the school buildings. Footpath access may be required or at least wellingtons/gumboots to navigate winter conditions.
If the site is a long way from school buildings, then time will be taken up getting there. This in itself may represent further opportunities to add an access path enhanced with avenue trees, archways and arbors, willow/hazel walkways etc… an exciting journey to the FS site.
You may also have a patch of ground nearer the school buildings, in which case a site will be much easier and cost effective to establish.
Shelter: from prevailing, cold north or east winds.
Strong and cold winds can make FS activities challenging. Take note of prevailing winds and compass directions. Make use of any existing fences, trees, buildings and neighboring vegetation to create enclosure and shelter.
Aesthetics: overhanging boundary trees add instant age and character.
Street trees, hedges, etc., all add to an ambiance of the ‘forest’. Likewise, fences and buildings can all help establish fast growing climbing plants and act as support for trellis, camouflage netting and other cladding materials.
What size to make the forest school?
Once we have chosen a good site – how much space is available and how much do we need?
The site can be any size, but we would recommend a minimum of 200 square meters with no upward limit on size. If you have a large site, then it is beneficial to enclose the site with a boundary so that your children know their limits.
You will also want a class to spend most of their time in one area, the FS base camp, with further site expeditions as an occasional option.
What to include in the forest school site?
Forest School Base Camp:
This is where the majority of activities will take place – induction sessions, storytelling, fire garden, whittling, and any other dedicated learning. You will need to allow a main gathering space for a whole class. This may also include a shelter, storage, a circular sitting area, a long table, etc. For this area, we must also consider the surface for all year access – see previous post on developing a forest school site for suitable surface options
If space is limited, then the FS Base Camp will be the whole extent of your development. Barriers, fences, trellis, hazel hurdles should be used as appropriate to your needs, and these create opportunities for entrances and archways, arbors, and indeed shelters, rustic pergolas, firewood storage and so on.
Always consider the multifunctionality of your site, group structures together, and be unique!
Footpaths and Trails:
A path giving all year access to the FS is also useful as a main thoroughfare around the site, with secondary paths developing ad hoc without the need for particular surfacing. This primary path will connect all the gathering areas and small group activity places. It will also give access to the add-ons which make your FS exciting and unique: a bridge or tunnel to a secret garden, a dark wood, a flowery glade (spring bulbs), your choice here!
Use lengths of logs and rounds for infrastructure, habitat and interest. Create changes of levels with the excavations from surfacing. Think about focal points and views to special features.
Once the main infrastructure of FS Base Camp, main path and features are in place, the rest can be planted up with a selection of trees, shrubs/bushes and other plants.
See our list of Very Useful Plants for Forest School Sites