Developing Thinking Skills within Forest School

By Judith Stephenson, Thinking School Lead, Barbara Priestman Academy

As an academy for students with Autism/Complex needs, the development of thinking skills is a fundamental part of our students’ learning and impacts positively on all areas of their development both academically and pastorally.

At the beginning of our journey we identified key dispositions we thought were important to teach and develop within our students. Art Costa, defines these dispositions as Habits of Mind. This means having the mind-set toward behaving intelligently when confronted with problems. He has identified 16 key attributes of what human beings do when they behave intelligently. These habits are seldom performed in isolation; often clusters of habits are drawn upon and employed in various situations. When actively listening, for example, then the habits of flexibility, metacognition, precise language questioning and in many cases managing impulsivity are utilised.

By explicitly teaching students about the Habits of Mind and encouraging them to think about which disposition could be drawn on when facing a specific difficulty, they become more proficient in being able to support themselves and others in their learning until their use does become habitual.

Research shows that the outdoor environment encourages skills such as problem solving and negotiating risk which are important for child development. Learning outside the classroom can provide children with a sense of freedom and can influence their attitudes towards learning whilst also enabling them to develop important skills that are valued by employers and work cultures. These include social skills, confidence building, problem solving and creativity.

Forest School activites at Barbara Priestman

We are incredibly lucky to have fabulous grounds and have an amazing Forest School which has been developed over the years by both staff and students and encourages:


Spiritual – awe and wonder of nature, being intrigued, wow moments, success.
Physical – play, movement, gross and fine motor skills, using different muscle groups.
Intellectual –problem solving, play, story-telling, design and construction, creativity, imagination and review and reflection.
Communication – speaking and listening skills, social skills, empathy, team work, leadership skills, and developing a community ethos.
Emotional – self regulation, self-awareness, self-motivation, feeling good about oneself.
Social – working together, turn taking, decision making, negotiation, decision making, supporting others, empathy.

This has been a great way of students developing a range of Habits of Mind in a really fun, engaging and purposeful way.

Barbara Priestman – Forest School students

Our Forest School is an on-going project for pupils to design, create and build an external learning environment. We carry out a range of Forest School sessions throughout the key stages. Forest School engages students in the outdoors developing emotional intelligence and resilience. The focus on sessions is for students to learn through play and develop skills through learner led activities. This helps promote self-awareness, self-regulation, communication skills and self-esteem and offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and themselves.

Forest School supports the holistic needs of our students and incorporates many other aspects of our curriculum that support these needs while also developing their thinking skills e.g. the five ways of wellbeing; Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Learn and Give. Within these five areas, students develop a number of aspects of the Habits of Mind as well as supporting our work on Zones of Regulation which supports students in building skills in emotional and sensory regulation, executive functioning, and social cognition. The Zones framework is designed to help students recognise independently, when they need regulation and what that regulation looks like while at the same time accepting and respecting each individual student and their unique self.

Forest School produce!

For our students, many of whom have issues with fine motor skills and sensory issues, Forest School is a fantastic environment for developing spatial awareness and hand/eye co-ordination as well as encouraging them to experience a range of tactile experiences; wet and dry sand, mud, clay as well as handling and caring for a range of animals. This immersive experience helps students experience the natural environment taking part in a hands-on engaging experience where they can touch, smell and listen to their surrounding world.

Students are very reflective on their experiences of Forest School and one commented, “I feel more relaxed; I know I’m learning but it doesn’t feel like a lesson”

For so many reasons, Forest School continues to be one of students’ favourite learning experiences.

Judith Stephenson
Thinking School Lead
Barbara Priestman Academy

Find out more about Barbara Priestman Academy and their work as an Advanced Thinking School by visiting their website.

To develop thinking skills in your school, and adopt a whole school approach to metacognition

Scroll to Top