3 MIN READ | Mental Health

Outdoors Can Be a Great Place for Learning – The Forest School Approach

Carl Dutton

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I like being outdoors. I enjoy all the aspects of the weather – come rain or shine, hail or snow. I love watching things grow, move, and the changes in light when walking through a woodland. My senses are stimulated by noises familiar and not so, my skin can be activated by the brush of a branch or stroke of a piece of long grass, my sense of smell can pick up honeysuckle growing wild in a hedge or the strong smell of wild garlic from a fair distance away, and my eyes can become focused on the small detail of a leaf’s structure or the wider view of a path leading somewhere.

Now these senses then lead to thoughts and feelings some from distant times of younger years, to being in the moment with all that outdoors can offer, to future thinking of things to be done – a place to reflect and solve problems which might need dealing with in the moment or in the near future.

I have been interested in the outdoors and the use of these spaces as therapy for some considerable time and have written about horticulture as therapy and its benefits for mental health over the past 12 years or so. More recently my focus has been on developing the forest school model and philosophy for the benefit of young people’s mental health and well-being.

Forest school is an inspirational process that offers all learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands on learning experiences in a woodland or a natural environment with trees. Being on a forest school can be an excellent way of supporting young people to learn and has been traditionally used in education to enhance and add a new perspective on this through different types of woodland/woodcraft activities. It’s origins come from Scandinavia and the open air culture called ‘frulitsliv‘ which is a part of life.

I believe that the forest school model can be as productive in helping young people with a range of mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions learn to manage thoughts and feelings, to develop skills which might help problem solve, to feel rested and relaxed by just being in nature, and have time to reflect and plan.

Myself and a colleague in partnership with Lancashire, Manchester, and North Merseyside Wildlife Trust have started a specific forest school for young people with emotional and mental health issues using a range of activities to develop skills such as woodcarving, cooking outside on open fires, and using a range of woodland tools. The sessions are two hours long and run weekly. We discuss and plan for each session but also allow space for unplanned exploring, making, and just being.

Early indications are that the young people like the range of activities. Being outdoors also offers an informal space to talk, gives time to just be in space with all your senses, and is fun to do. We have already seen how for some young people it has increased confidence and for others it has helped them to reduce isolation.

At this time we are just starting with using some basic measures such as well-being check cards and the RSPB connection to nature questionnaire to start to evidence how being in a forest school environment might affect well being and feeling connected with nature given that many young people have not had chances to be in nature and natural environments.

Forest school is a great space to provide therapy for young people which allows them to develop skills that will promote mental health and well-being, as well as new ways to solve and manage life’s ups and downs.


Carl Dutton is a psychodrama psychotherapist working in the NHS in FRESH CAMHS at Alderhey Children’s NHS Foundation Trust. 

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