Ways the Forest School Approach Can Help Kids With Autism Grow
What is Forest School?
Forest School is a type of outdoor education which takes place in natural spaces and encourages participants to develop personal, social and practical skills.
The concept of Forest School was brought to the United Kingdom by a group of early years practitioners from Bridgwater College who visited Denmark and returned enthused by the child-centered outdoor learning which they encountered there. Using the Danish model, they began their own Forest School, and word quickly spread of the positive outcomes which they were evidencing amongst the children in their groups.
Forest School became a phenomenon in the UK and was soon being offered to people of all ages and abilities. Amongst those seen to benefit were participants who struggled in traditional classroom settings including pupils with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). There isn’t currently a great deal of research into autism and nature activities but there is a growing body of evidence to prove a link in the general population between increased well being, higher achievement and access to nature. There are many individual stories illustrating the positive influence which Forest School has had on autistic participants.
The first time I encountered Forest School I volunteered to help at a session run by the school my children attend. I’ve always loved getting outdoors, and I’d heard a lot about “Forest School.” The session was very interesting. The children were clearly having a great time and so was their teacher. Somewhere amongst the pine cones, smiling kids and dens I had a light bulb moment. I had worked for years supporting autistic people of all ages and abilities. I could see that Forest School could offer a great deal to the people I was supporting, and so we began our journey into the woods together.
The Forest School Approach
Of course, there is nothing new about the concept of outdoor education. There is a long tradition of outdoor learning which includes activities such as summer camps and scouting. As people have become less involved in the natural world in their daily lives, there has been a growing realization that contact with nature is vital to our well being.
Forest School should be seen as part of this tradition but also brings its own distinct flavor to the mix. At its heart lies gentle compassion and an understanding of the need to value each and every participant and recognize their individual gifts. It was this person-centered ethos that attracted me to the Forest School approach, and from the outset, I recognized the similarities between this outlook and the qualities required when supporting autistic people and their families.
Hand in hand with this person-centered principle is a sense of space. The physical space is very important. The idea that connecting with the natural world is beneficial is central to the concept. In her book Forest School for All, Sara Knight describes the relationship between the participant, the Forest School practitioner and the environment as a “triangle of trust.” Initial sessions concentrate on building these relationships at the pace which suits the participant. This awareness of physical space implicitly acknowledges an understanding of the sensory environment which is vital when trying to understand the needs of people who are processing sensory stimuli differently. The sense of space also includes space in time. Space to process, to stim, to seek quiet places or to reduce demands.
Forest School has a holistic approach and works in partnership with teachers, parents and other supporters to contribute to each child’s growth and development. Any existing interventions can be continued in the natural setting and observations from sessions can be shared to deepen understanding of each participant.
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What does Forest School bring to autistic children?
When these approaches are brought together by an autism-aware practitioner, ASD children have an opportunity to thrive. Let’s consider what Forest School can offer:
1. A person-centered approach doesn’t only take into account any differences or difficulties someone may have. Special interests are welcome in the woods and are a great way to engage people. One of my learners made a beautiful steam train from sticks and created a track which wound its way around the forest.
2. Forest School recognizes that autism brings strengths. One participant chose to engage visually with the woods-lying on his back watching the kaleidoscope the sunlight created as it shone through the overhead leaf canopy or staring into the flames of the campfire. To encourage engagement on his terms, we gave him the camera which we use to take evidence photos of our work, and when we looked at his photos, we could see his visual skills in the brilliant composition of his photographs.
3. Forest School encourages an interest in nature. When this comes together with the passion and focus which autism brings, great things can happen. Here in the UK, we have a great role model for young people with ASD and an interest in nature, Chris Packham is one of our best-known wildlife experts, as well as presenting TV nature shows and being a best-selling author, Chris is a tireless campaigner for the environment and has a diagnosis of ASD which he has written about and discussed on TV.
4. The benefits of being in a natural environment . This realization helps the practitioner to better empathize with people who are experiencing differences in their sensory processing. Sensory rooms often seem to feature recordings of running water, wind or rainfall and gently shifting light. All of this is right here in the woods, in the breeze through the branches and the clouds drifting by above the trees. Forest school works in partnership with the participant and their supporters to meet their sensory needs. There is a rich sensory environment which can be explored or, if there is a need to reduce stimuli, quiet spaces can be created in sitting spots, dens or hammocks.
5. Building up confidence, resilience and self-esteem are central tenets of the approach. Recognizing individual achievement is very important. For some participants, this may be trying a different type of food which has been cooked on the fire or showing an improved ability to interact with others patiently. An ASD man worked alongside me as a volunteer for a year. He had been unemployed and lived quite an isolated life but went on to represent our Forest School at a national awards ceremony in London and to earn a runners-up placement as Volunteer of the Year in his own right in a separate award.
6. Social interaction can happen at the participants own pace. The approach allows space for people who are becoming overloaded, and people can join in with a group activity or seek their own solitary activity. One participant in my sessions sat and watched the group for three months, politely declining offers to join in. One day he suddenly decided that he had watched enough and stood up and began to take part. From that point onwards he volunteered for every task. I don’t know what process had taken place, but Forest School was able to afford the space which that child needed to gain the confidence to join in on his own terms.
7. The Forest School ethos maintains that everyone is a learner. Teachers, support staff and Forest School practitioners are encouraged to reflect and learn alongside the children. This is a great boon for ASD learners. This process encourages the adults involved in their support to learn about the ASD child—to appreciate their individuality, gifts, sensory needs, and communication needs. The relationships built at Forest School, together with the observations made, can be carried over into the rest of the child’s education and help them to reach their full potential.
In the UK Forest Schools are attended by people of all ages and abilities. There are groups for children, teenagers and adults, and ASD learners attend sessions through schools, kindergartens and day centers. Sessions may be autism-specific, family groups with parents and siblings, in integrated groups together with NT participants, or 1-1 sessions. There’s a flavor of Forest School for everyone!
I’ve left the most important part of Forest School until last. Forest School is wonderfully fun. Sharing positive experiences together, valuing one another’s individuality and celebrating achievements. Forest School is open to all. Who wants to come down to the woods and join us?
Michael James is the author of Forest School and Autism. He has worked for 17 years supporting ASD in various settings. He has delivered a presentation on Forest School to the XI Autism Europe International Congress and has led Autism Awareness workshops for The Forest School Association. His work was recognized with a finalists place in the Autism category at the 2015 Laing Buisson Awards.”
Book: Forest School and Autism by Michael James published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers https://www.jkp.com/usa/forest-school-and-autism-1.html/?___store=jkpusa&___from_store=jkpuk
This article was featured in Issue 84 – The Journey to Good Health and Well-Being