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The Role of Play in Forest School

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

“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 that it should not be forced. Practitioners can put on intentional lenses if they feel that certain activities will extend their development. This is in line with Lev Vygotsky’s socio-cultural theory. He believed that children can enter the Zone of Proximal Development if they interact with an adult or a peer who has a certain amount of knowledge pertaining to a specific concept. The Zone of Proximal Development is the difference between what the learner can do by himself and what he can achieve with guidance from a skilled peer or adult. At Forest School, we organise games with the children. The children are aware that they are more than welcome to modify the games to make it more challenging and interesting.

Principle 5: The role of the playworker is to support all children and young people in creation of a space to play.

According to the pedagogy of the Reggio Emilia approach, the environment is the third teacher. This being said, it does not mean that the environment has to be filled with letters, words, numbers or flash cards of animals or types of transportation. Instead it refers to ensuring the availability of space for movement and access to open-ended materials for creativity to unfold. Other than space and materials, it is also crucial that the space is safe for the child. Through our observations of how the children use our nature space, we continually work to develop its value for both nature and learning to create the most inspiring setting for learning possible.

A child contemplating their play space from a different perspective

Principle 6: The playworkers’ responses to players are based on a sound up-to-date knowledge of play process. It is a reflective practice.

Forest School practitioners learn about Early Childhood theories of play, the image of the child and how we can support the child’s development in a respectful way. This means practitioners are familiar with the developmental milestones. They dedicate time to understand the possible reasons behind a child’s interest or behaviour. They are also constantly in communication with one another to extend the child’s learning or support a behaviour which may be a cause for concern. Practitioners understand that children may delve into the same play experience over and over again as they try to develop a better understanding of a play schema (for example exploring trajectory schema: throwing, observing the speed of water flowing and enjoying the speed on the swing). Practitioners respect the children’s need to explore the schema over a period of time and it is a necessary part of development.

“The more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.”

Henry David Thoreau


Principle 7: Playworkers recognise their own impact on the play space. Also, the impact of children and young people’s play on the playworker.

The quality of play space depends on the commitment of the practitioners. Observations of children’s interaction with the space plays a crucial role. Through these observations, playworkers are able to appreciate the children’s curiosity, inquiry and dynamics. Their interests and needs change as they grow. Being in an environment which honours child-led play means designing an environment which is fluid. This is why each of our sessions may look a little different.

Principle 8: Playworkers choose an intervention style that enables children and young people to extend their play. All intervention must balance risk with development benefit and well-being of children.

One of the most delicate skills for a forest school leader to master is the ability to enhance an ongoing play experience without sounding imposing. If a child were to choose to climb or crawl on a log, what would you say? How far would you stand from the child to give him space to play and grow? It takes practice for adults to observe a play experience and trust that the child is benefitting from his interaction with the materials and space around him even with minimal intervention from adults. But of course, adults’ intervention is necessary when safety is a concern. Which brings us to the topic of risky play. Risky play involves a lot of experimenting with things around them, challenging themselves a little further to see what might happen. Examples of risky play are: climbing on logs, using tools for craft, building a campfire, a game of hide-and-seek, exploring speed on a swing, playing on a high tower at a playground. When it comes to safety in a risky play, instead of telling children, “Be careful!” or “Don’t do that!”, the focus should be on getting children to think how everyone can still be safe and still challenge themselves.

Tree climbing is a traditional form of risky play at Forest School

We hope we have inspired you to think of the types of play we can all engage our children in and how it is so important that we honour their needs for play and follow current interests. Children need the time and space to explore and engage in dialogues with the world around them.

“The physical exercise and stretching that children enjoy in unorganised play is more varied and less time-bound than is found in organised sports. Playtime – especially unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play – is increasingly recognised as an essential component of wholesome child development."

Richard Louv


About Aminah

Aminah is our Senior Teacher in charge of our pre-school programme for 3.5-6 year olds. Aminah has years of experience in educating in an Reggio Emilia setting and is working on her Level 3 Forest School Leader qualification. Aminah is a mum of two young boys and you'll find her in her free time out in nature and practicing mindfulness.


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