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Outdoor learning spaces: The case of forest school


Outdoor space provides new opportunities for children and teachers to interact in a way that stimulates both teaching and learning

This research investigated how the learning spaces in outdoor learning differ from the learning spaces in the classroom. The forest school — a form of regular and repeated outdoor learning increasingly common in primary schools in the UK — is used as an example of outdoor learning. The study focused on how the learning space at forest school shapes the experience of children and forest school leaders as they engage in teaching and learning outside the classroom. Different dimensions of the learning space were considered: physical space, norms and expectations, affordances, social dynamics, and curriculum.

The study was conducted in two phases: one relying on observations of 72 primary children attending forest school; the other on semi-structured interviews with 20 forest school practitioners. Results from phase one were used to help shape the interview questions, specifically in relation to how the outdoor learning space influenced the outdoor learning sessions.

The observations revealed three different aspects of learning spaces at forest school: physical space; behavioral space; and space outside of the national curriculum. Interview responses were coded in relation to these three themes. The idea of freedom — mentioned repeatedly during the interviews as a feature of forest school – related to each of these themes. While the move outdoors allowed freedom from the physical space of the classroom, it also provided greater freedom in terms of behavioral expectations and in relation to the time pressures and demands of the national curriculum. This freedom applied to both teachers and students and made room for different learning styles and more child-initiated learning. It also allowed children to interact with the natural environment.

Forest school leaders reported that children enjoyed being outdoors and that the learning experiences were exciting and memorable. They also noted that the outdoor space gave children the opportunity to choose what and how they wanted to engage in learning activities, including the choice to work individually or in groups. This freedom created a more relaxed and calm learning environment.

This paper adds to our understanding of how spaces are used by educators, including the increased use of outdoor learning spaces among primary children. As this research shows, the outdoor space provides new opportunities for children and teachers to interact and learn in a way that stimulates both teaching and learning.


Harris, F., (2017). Outdoor learning spaces: The case of forest school. AREA


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