Research Summary

Place-based outdoor learning: More than a drag and drop approach

Place-based outdoor learning extends the success of the Forest School approach

Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

This paper discusses place-based outdoor learning (PBOL) and examines how this approach differs from Forest School learning. The paper highlights differences between the two approaches by presenting a case study of a year-long PBOL program implemented in an Australian primary school.

While the authors acknowledge the value of the Forest School movement in offering children rich outdoor experiences, they note how this movement is “under-theorised and under-researched in diverse contexts.” One of their concerns relates to the tendency to “drag and drop” the Forest School model from one context to another without acknowledging the local place, environment or culture. This practice, they say, represents a program versus a pedagogy. PBOL, in contrast, builds its curriculum around the local environment and focuses on the social, cultural, economic, political and natural contexts of those environments. In addition to the emphasis on the localized learning environment, PBOL is also characterized by an interdisciplinary curriculum, with the teachers (versus external facilitators) delivering the sessions.

Researchers (the authors of this paper) used a case study approach to examine a PBOL program in relation to the Forest School movement. They collected whole class data on 27 primary children participating in the program. This data included academic results, behavioral records and general observations. More in-depth data was collected on eight of the participating children. Sources of this data included semi-formal interviews, visual methods, photographs, photo elicitation, structured observations, body-worn GoPro cameras, and the collection of work samples.

The PBOL program included weekly sessions conducted in the school grounds and nearby natural spaces. The classroom teacher led all the sessions, consulting environmental experts and local Indigenous elders, as needed. The integrated curriculum used during the outdoor lessons included science, geography, art and English and emphasized the transfer of learning between the indoor and outdoor environments. Results from this PBOL case study and those presented in Forest School research indicate some similarities. Both approaches provide meaningful learning opportunities for children in an outdoor environment and promote children’s interpersonal skills and overall well-being. Outcomes of both approaches include increased independence and self-confidence, the development of communication and leadership skills, and heightened motivation for learning.

Findings of this case study indicate that the PBOL approach extends the success of Forest School in several ways. The oral language components of the program, for example, were also relevant to classroom writing lessons, which resulted in more detailed and accurate content than general writing assignments. Another example relates to heightened motivation for learning. While other outdoor learning programs – including Forest School – promote motivation for learning, the current study shows that with PBOL that motivation is transferred to indoor tasks.

This study found that with the PBOL program, primary school curriculum outcomes can be achieved to a high standard. The researchers note, however, that the skills needed by teachers to successfully implement an PBOL program aren’t consistently taught in teacher education programs. The specific focus of such training should emphasize place-responsiveness as a guide to planning and implementing outdoor learning.

Lloyd, A., Truong, S., & Gray, T.. (2018). Place-based outdoor learning: More than a drag and drop approach. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21, 45-60. doi: