After 25 years of forest schooling, rooting around in the muddy margins of the British education system, Richard Irvine is in demand. Now it seems everyone, from head teachers to doctors, youth-offending teams to academics, is interested in forest schools.
Instagram followers like his photos of an “Eiffel Tower fungus” climbing the base of an oak tree and kitchen tongs made by hand out of ash wood, and publishers want him to write books. In fact, he has just published a new how-to guide, Forest School for Grown-Ups, which combines practical tips, science and forest lore.
A Scandinavian pedagogical innovation, forest schools were first imported into Britain in 1993 by Somerset nursery staff who visited Denmark and saw the benefits of unstructured play and exploration. By the 2000s a handful of councils had begun funding local colleges to develop forest school training and private providers started offering courses.
It was during the Covid-19 pandemic, however, that the forest school boom hit the UK. As children and adults alike were forced outdoors, two thirds of 200 forest schools surveyed by the Forest School Association reported a higher demand for places.
Despite this increase, there are only 108 certified forest school practitioners in the UK. Irvine, 51, must be one of the first. Having originally trained as a geography teacher at the University of Oxford, he spent the next 25 years pursuing a career in outdoor experiential learning, teaching children – from underprivileged primary school groups to adolescents with special educational needs – the ways of the woods.
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Born in the city of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, he discovered nature during teenage hiking trips in the Mourne Mountains. At the height of the Troubles in the Eighties, the police community-relations division organised hill-walking trips every weekend “to bring Catholic and Protestant young people together”, he recalled. He now lives in Great Torrington, a north Devon market town, with his wife and two sons.
We met on a sunny winter morning at Irvine’s “office”, a peaceful 18-hectare slice of Devonshire woodland, shaded by ivy-clad ash trees, mature oaks and pines; a stream rushed along the edge of the glade.
Creations made by his students surrounded us: tarpaulin shelters held up by bendy branches of hazel; a “tippy-tap” handwashing station with a suspended jerrycan tied to a wooden pedal; tree-stump seats encircling a blackened firepit.
We had scrambled down here from a winding road to Tapeley Park mansion; the landowning family who founded Glyndebourne leased Irvine the plot. At the far end of the estate is one of England’s earliest forest kindergartens, which started out a decade ago as a Steiner school – now the largest independent school movement in the world, which follows a holistic educational philosophy of free play and practical learning.
With his cropped grey hair and beard and battered blue jacket, whittling knife clipped to his trousers, Irvine eschewed both the hippie aesthetic and extreme-weather chic. He joked about outdoor enthusiasts who “collect skills like Pokémon cards” and become “obsessed with equipment, spending a lot of money on the best knife, the best coat. You shouldn’t think you have to be head-to-toe in Patagonia or whatever to fit in.” In 2014 Irvine switched to providing forest school for adults, mainly training teachers, but also catering to new parents who had noticed how much their young children loved playing in nature.
He believes that not only children gain from connecting with green spaces. The benefits for all of us include “attention restoration”: if you’re having trouble working, for example, going for a walk in such a setting helps recover concentration. “As long as you’re not too focused on your walk, you have this thing called ‘soft fascination’: you’re looking at the clouds, the trees, and 20 minutes of that somehow changes your brain and helps you regain that focus that was drifting,” Irvine said. “I come out here to write, do job applications, anything that requires real concentration.”
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During my day at Irvine’s forest school, I learned how to find the best kindling (branches that have died in the darkness within a holly bush, fallen beech twigs still balancing on the tree), build a fire, coppice hazel, and whittle a pointy stick. We foraged for wild garlic and mixed it into a bread dough to bake over the flames on our freshly whittled skewers.
We brewed “Ivan chai”, a tea made from rosebay willowherb, the tall, weed-like purple flowers you see sprouting along railway lines and from derelict buildings. (The story goes that during the Second World War, the Nazis advancing on Leningrad destroyed an Ivan chai factory, mistaking it for a superfood invented to strengthen the Red Army.)
The physical and psychological value of this kind of experience for adults is “pretty holistic”, in Irvine’s view. “As a lot of adults get older, start a family, things become more insular and nuclear. There’s more of a need for community and playing, and not worrying about how we’re being seen, or taking things or ourselves too seriously.”
When adults learn new things together, it “flattens hierarchies” and encourages collaboration, he said. “It’s a way of being together that can make you aware that at work it doesn’t have to be structured so that you have five bosses above you, and you’re feeling like you’re completely powerless and not listened to.”
Yet Irvine does not romanticise being at one with nature. “Any mental health problem you might have, or even if you’re just feeling a bit low – if it’s because you don’t have enough money, there’s something structurally wrong with your work situation, or there’s a family member who’s ill, no amount of time in the woods is going to fix it. It might make you feel a bit better for a while, but it’s not a cure-all; it treats the symptom. Which is not to knock it, because that’s how I use it.”
More than a decade ago, lessons like his baffled the educational establishment. He described an Ofsted inspector coming to see his forest school at Appledore primary school in 2007, “not wanting to get their shoes dirty, tiptoeing around the firepit and leaving after about two minutes”.
But perhaps forest school has become too fashionable. “It’s been neo-liberalised, with some places taking 20 per cent of profit off the people who work in their woods,” Irvine said. “There’s this co-option happening, in that it’s become a bit of a brand as much as an ethos, especially with a certain demographic of parents who recognise that it’s something they would like for their children. It’s growing among the very aspirational, outdoor, woodlands, surfy, Cornish-holiday type of parents.”
Schools eager to appeal to these families risk offering “forest school lite”, as Irvine put it. This is “tokenistic, in name only, in the corner of a field with a clipboard and a worksheet and half an hour of teacher-directed activity” as opposed to the “full-fat forest school” experience that exhibits the discipline’s ideals of looser, explorative play.
As he sipped the dregs of his Ivan chai and picked remnants of wild garlic bread off his hazel skewer, Irvine said that the key to forest schooling was the difference between “learnification” and education. “Education is about becoming in the world, getting to know yourself and your place in society, as much as passing exams and jumping through hoops.”
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Forest School for Grown-Ups by Richard Irvine is published by Head of Zeus.
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder