The blending of Forest School with formal education can promote skills not typically addressed in a classroom-only setting

Coates, J. K., & Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2019). Learning while playing: Children's Forest School experiences in the UK. British Educational Research Journal, 45, 21-40.

Forest School represents a type of informal education conducted in a woodland or other natural environment. Forest School pedagogy focuses on hands-on and playful experiences. During Forest School children are given a great deal of freedom to choose their own activities. Classroom learning, on the other hand, represents a formal approach to education. This approach tends to be more structured and teacher directed.

A one-year study explored how primary school children interpreted their learning experiences in relation to the intersection between formal and informal approaches to learning. Two primary schools in the UK participated in this study. Fifteen children (age 4-5) from a Reception Year class  and 18 children (age 8-9) from a Year 4 class participated in interviews after completing a six-week Forest School (FS) experience. Year 4 children participated in a FS program that was outsourced to a local FS provider in a nearby woodland. This program -- facilitated by FS practitioners, the class teacher and parent helpers – consisted of six weekly, full-day excursions in the FS setting. The FS experience for children in the Reception Year class was led by the classroom teacher who had completed FS training. This FS experience involved six weekly, half-days and was conducted in a local woodland a short drive away from the school. During their interviews, children were asked about their perceptions of classroom learning, outdoor engagement, and Forest School experiences.

An analysis of the data revealed three inter-related themes: a break from routine; learning through play; and collaboration and teamwork. A break from routine, as articulated by the children, included two sub-themes: being outside and a change in adult and child expectations. This change offered the children more freedom and increased autonomy. Being outside was associated with feeling refreshed and more child-like and being more active and playful. While both age groups felt more playful at FS, this seemed to be more impactful for the older children. They were acutely aware of their diminished time for play at school, and struggled with the dichotomy between their learning experiences in the classroom and their outdoor FS time.  In spite of the dichotomy, some children recognized that playing at FS was, indeed, an opportunity to learn. The most frequently discussed learning opportunities discussed by children in both age groups related to interactions with peers. This was especially significant for the older children. They described the FS as an opportunity for developing collaborative and team-working skills in ways not applicable to a classroom setting.

The overall findings of this study suggest that the blending of FS with formal education can promote the development of skills not typically addressed in a classroom-only setting. These skills include social interaction skills, confidence building, problem solving, independence, negotiation, and creativity. These findings highlight the need for primary schools to consider learning outside of the classroom as an effective pedagogy for promoting holistic learning and development.

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