The benefits of Forest School for children with SEMH needs

January 27, 2024

What is a Forest School?

Forest School is a concept first established in Denmark in the 19th century, it came to the UK in the 1990s and is now an established part of many schools’ curriculum. Its roots reach back to the open-air culture, friluftsliv (a love of being in nature without disturbing it). Fundamentally, a child-led, investigative learning approach which supports play, exploration and supported risk-taking to develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on experiences in a natural setting.

There are benefits of having a Forest School for all learners, but TICS associate, Cat Jolleys, saw first-hand the benefits for children with SEMH, when she was Deputy Headteacher at an SEMH specialist primary school.

Cat noted how most of the children would demonstrate limited focus and engagement in the classroom, with frequent occurrences of emotional dysregulation. She remembers,

"When Forest School was first introduced the children were excited and viewed it as an additional playtime. So did the staff, so their excitement levels were slightly lower."

However, the apprehensions of staff soon dissipated when they began to notice short term and more sustainable beneficial outcomes. Cat remembers how staff observed sustained focus in the task of whittling a wooden spoon, with others becoming lost (not literally) in the woods searching collaboratively, with peers, for the perfect kindling to light the fire for marshmallow melting. These were children who found static, adult-led classroom learning, challenging.

All the children had an EHCP for SEMH, with many having diagnoses of Autism, ADHD or other neurodivergencies and all had been excluded, or at risk of exclusion, from their previous, mainstream primary. They had all, without exception, had negative experiences of their previous schools where, as hard as the staff had tried to include them and keep them regulated, their needs just couldn't be met and trauma had resulted. This presented as; a lack of trust in adults, a fear and often dislike of learning, a dislike of being physically close to peers and often a strong intolerance of being inside a classroom. The outside and accompanying space, quiet and freedom from academic expectations, was a balm to them and they flourished.

The Research

Research has uncovered some of the benefits of using Forest School as a Trauma Informed approach for all children, but of increased benefit to those who have experienced trauma and are quick to dysregulate in a classroom environment. These include; developed social and play skills, communication skills, increased motivation and confidence, physical and motor skills, knowledge and understanding and a developed interest in the natural world.

Research in 2020, found the use of the outdoors as both a physical and emotional space, has particular benefits for children with SEMH needs. A two-year continuous forest school programme, found a potential for it to become a space for more-than-social pedagogies in which children care for other worlds, building confidence and resilience in the pupils as well as allowing opportunities for feelings to be explored in a safe way.

The benefits of Forest School for children, who may be marginalised in our schools, are plentiful and go beyond how to take off wellies by yourself.

Cat is now training to become a Forest School teacher and leader and is living her best friluftsliv life so she can support you on your friluftsliv journey.

If you need any help and support or just a general chat about ‘all things Trauma Informed’, please get in touch with Lyndsay, our Working Together Lead at and our team will support you in your journey.

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