Before we discuss the benefits of play in an educational setting, such as a forest school, it is important firstly to have an understanding of what we mean by play. Play is a term that has been debated for years for a true definition.  Play is difficult to define as it encompasses a broad variety of behaviours and contexts. An additional complexity is that it is not just restricted to children, adults also still play.

So…What is Play?

  • Play is free and unstructured.
  • Play can be independent or as part of a group.
  • Play may involve equipment or just pure imagination.
  • Play can be; boisterous, energetic, quiet, contemplative, light-hearted or serious.
  • Play can bring children and adults together.
  • Play is an essential element to Learning.

The last point is why play is so important in the Forest School Setting. Play offers opportunities for individuals to use  creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and social, physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Research has linked healthy brain development strongly to play.

There has been a great amount of research put into the way that children Play. Bob Hughes researched and published(publication link – click here) a Playworker’s Taxonomy of Play types. His research has provided practitioners with a language to be able to discuss different play types. Below you will see a summary of his work. Click on the table for a printable version with more detail.

In our busy lifestyles, changing family structures, societies focus on academics and extra curricular activities the opportunities to play have been greatly reduced, which is why it is such an important tool in the context of Forest School. Forest School’s offer the ideal opportunity for play experiences in a truly inspiring environment.

Play the Forest School Way:

Play should be encouraged, fostered and nurtured in a Forest School Setting. Below are a few simple methods I have used to encourage play:

  • Just allowing free time/play in the woods can be incredible. Children/clients take the time to be creative with their play and you will often observe some fantastic learning as a result.
  • Play can be facilitated through the activities you plan. Open ended activities, which allow children/clients a choice are ideal for play. Through role play you can really get the children buzzing, e.g. dress up as a wizard and start a magical adventure, this will help lead the children into their own play ideas.
  • Play may also be facilitated through your choice of resources. Think carefully about the resources you provide, children will creatively use anything you provide when playing. Your resources could/should provide opportunities to engage children with different learning styles e.g. provide musical instruments, hands on are materials, writing tools, etc. I once provide a wide variety of different fabrics, children used them for dressing up, building shelters, catching one another, it was very simple but effective.
  • Games can also be an interesting way to encourage play, you may lead games as the practitioner to begin with e.g. playing games like hide and seek in a predefined area, find the tree you felt, etc. When children/clients build confidence you often find you can leave them to lead/create their own games. 
  • As tempting as it can be to step in and lead the play, just take a step back and watch. Whilst watching, you can even engage in play yourself, this can set an excellent example for your children/clients.
  • Think about the environment you are providing and how it can be adapted to maximising the amount of play the children have. During our training, my partner and I used the woodland to create a bus and another member built a dragon. Building things before the group arrives can really facilitate play.

The Playwork principles – an Evaluation

Over the last few years some key principles of playwork have been developed that are accepted and used by playworkers. Below I will have a look at these key principles and evaluate their relevance within a forest school environment. 

  1. All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well being of individuals and communities. Forest School can offer an ideal opportunity for children/teenagers and adults to play. Personally, during the training I experienced this notion that we need to play and it is biologically programmed. The joy I experienced from playing with bits of wood to create a structure, a toy train, a pretend bus was fantastic. This is an essential element of the forest school ethos. 
  2. Play is a process that is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated. That is, children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas and interests, in their own way for their own reasons. In principle this element is very true of the forest school environment, we do encourage free play and allow children to lead the learning. As a leader we may feel the need to control the learning, however as a practitioner we should be helping to steer the learning. We may steer the learning through providing activities that can be interpreted by children in different ways, so they are still given the freedom of choice. A practitioner may also facilitate the learning by the resources they provide in the environment, e.g. you may provide art materials as you’re keen to see the children’s artistic skills. 
  3. The prime focus and essence of playwork is to support and facilitate the play process and this should inform the development of play policy, strategy, training and education. Please see above evaluation – This area directly links to the evaluation above.
  4. For playworkers, the play process takes precedence and playworkers act as advocatees for play when engaging with adult led agendas. As a Forest School Practitioner you carefully choose and select your activities to ensure you have a play element that encourages free play. In a school environment you can often find that their is an adult led agenda that wants children to meet area of the National Curriculum, however as a practitioner you need to encompass the play and holistic view reflected by the Forest School Ethos. Having seen a significant number of forest schools, the most effective are those that choose to embrace the Forest School Ethos and see it as an extra, rather than trying to force other curriculum areas into the school.
  5. The role of the playworker is to support all children and young people in the creation of a space in which they can play. Within a woodland setting it is very easy for forest school practitioners to provide the area and resources in which the children can play – it’s there already. However, not all schools/institutions will have access to a true woodland environment in this situation it is important for the practitioner to find an area and the resources that can be used for children to play and explore. One such example is one school I worked for had logs provided by the local council so children could create their own woodland structures. 
  6. The playworker’s response to children and young people playing is based on a sound up to date knowledge of the play process, and reflective practice. At the heart of Forest School is the importance of having a qualified practitioner who can lead/facilitate the play process in a woodland environment. Key to the process is the opportunity for clients to reflect at the end of their sessions, however practitioners should also take the time to reflect on the session and how they could improve the experiences for  their clients in future sessions. 
  7. Playworkers recognise their own impact on the play space and also the impact of children and young people’s play on the playworker. This element plays directly into the evaluation and reflection elements of the Forest School programme.  It is important to make time to reflect on the experience for the clients and how your role can be developed or activities changed to ensure the best outcomes for the clients. 
  8. Playworkers choose an intervention style that enables children and young people to extend their play. All playworker intervention must balance risk with the developmental benefit and well being of children. This element links a number of different areas within the Forest School programme. Firstly, the understanding of the practitioners role as a facilitator; choosing activities, providing resources, knowing when to intervene and when to take a step back. It also links directly to the risk taking element encouraged by Forest School’s, practitioners intentionally learn to risk asses activities, however they also learn to way up the benefits against how risky the activity is. It comes back to the principle that risk taking can be good.