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The Role of Play in Forest School

“Can we play?” is possibly a question we hear most from children. Play is the most natural thing for children. They find joy in play experiences because of the endorphins released allow the mind and body to relax. Play is free-flowing and open-ended, thus making it enjoyable. The child has the power to take the play into any direction which makes most sense to him or her. Play is the fundamental element of learning. It is through play the child makes meaning of the world around him.

Children playing in the jungle at Wildlings

In Forest School, we honour the child’s need to play. We acknowledge the power of play and its impact on the child’s holistic development. The child is given time and space to play. According to the American Journal of Play, when offered the chance to explore and play at the child’s own pace, we are offering the child powerful learning opportunities as compared to adult-led experiences.

The learning that occurs during child-led play is intrinsically motivated and comes directly from within the child, their attention and motivation are at their highest and therefore so is their aptitude for learning in those moments.

“Creativity becomes more visible when adults try to be more attentive to the cognitive processes of children than to the results they achieve in various fields of doing and understanding.”

Loris Malaguzzi


We would like to share with you the Playwork Principles we adopt in Forest School. It is not a set of rules but instead philosophy and ethos. These principles provide guidelines to Forest School practitioners so that we can respond to children’s needs in appropriate ways.

Principle 1: All children and young people need to play. The impulse to play is innate. Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity. Play is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being of individuals and communities.

It is amazing how play fosters the holistic development of the child. For example, through collaborative play, the child exchanges ideas with his peers. He finds ways to express his opinions. Disagreements may arise but it is a wonderful opportunity for children to meet halfway and come to an agreement. At the same time, the child is building his ability to listen to ideas from others around him. Over time, the child begins to form a sense of identity; understanding his own likes, dislikes, things that make them giggle, things that make them sad. Being in tune with one’s own needs is also known as intrapersonal intelligence as mentioned by Howard Gardner.

Other than social and emotional development, play offers the child an opportunity to foster his physical development. For example, being on the swings improves the child’s vestibular processing system, which plays a key role in supporting the child’s connection with their body, gravity and physical world. The vestibular processing system is responsible for sensory processing i.e. touch, vision, sound and proprioception (a sense of where your body parts are, namely joints and muscles in relation to space around you, for e.g. moving backwards without looking). This fosters the child’s coordination, sense of balance, motor control of the eye, the ability to move confidently and bilateral coordination.

This video was compiled from experiences offered at Bukit Batok Nature Park and the Singapore Botanic Gardens (pre-pandemic).

Self-directed play with loose parts and friends

Principle 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 ways for their own reason.

Play becomes more meaningful to the child when he or she is the one who created the game. It creates a sense of ownership for the child. We have witnessed children in our sessions spending an hour sitting on the swings. Chatting away or just taking in the back-and-forth motion of the swing. The next thing we knew they were on their feet, engaged in a complex pretend play with a detailed storyline. They were so immersed in their pretend play that they had worked out the design on their pretend house, the type of food they were serving and the types of neighbours they had! Look at the amount of dedication they had put in their play. If they had been forced to play and be ‘productive’ before they were ready to leave the swing, that wonderful learning moment would not have taken place.

Potion making: We provide the ingredients, the children make the magic happen.

Principle 3: The prime focus and essence of playwork is to support and facilitate the play process. This should inform the development of play policy, strategy, training and education.

Forest School is unlike a formal school setting. The possibilities that nature has to offer is endless. Nature does not judge. It is absolutely alright if the child feels like going slow by sitting on the swings in that session or going on an exciting monster hunt the whole time. In his book Last Child In The Woods, Richard Louv wrote about a fifth-grader who sought refuge in nature. She said, “It’s like you’re free when you go out there. It’s your own time.” Forest School practitioners respect children’s interests and feelings during each session. We offer a couple of planned experiences but also leave it up to the children to decide what they would like to, therefore a key role of the forest school educators is on providing the most enriching natural play-scape as possible for learning through play to occur.

Principle 4: For playworkers, the play process takes precedence. Playworkers act as advocates for play when engaging with adult-led agenda.

What about adult-led play? Does it mean that adults should avoid planning anything? There is no harm in introducing children to adult-led activities. We need to however be mindful