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What is different about Forest School? Creating a space for an alternative pedagogy


The divergence and freedoms inherent in Forest School may contribute to the well-being of participants

The focus of this paper is on Forest School (FS) as an alternative pedagogical approach to the more knowledge-centered approach used in the delivery of state education in England. A comparison is made between the principles framing English education and English Forest School. This paper also explores how perceived differences between mainstream educational contexts can promote the well-being of students of different ages and abilities participating in FS. Three empirical case studies of English Forest School provide evidence supporting the thesis that FS pedagogy – by encouraging new ways of interaction – can contribute to the development of noncognitive skills and the well-being of children. The three studies also highlight ways in which competing cultural densities can influence the implementation of FS principles. Cultural density is a concept which helps to explain how cultural practices and norms of behavior intersect with place to support some educational aims while interfering with others.

The first case study focused on four- and five-year-old children in their initial years of schooling. The aim of the study was to help a local authority make a decision about supporting FS training for early childhood educators. Four FS programs serving 59 children participated in the study. Settings included an orchard and woodlands near the school grounds. The second case focused on 13 students (age 12-17) identified by their school has having special behavioral or nurture-related needs. These students were referred to FS to help them become more engaged with learning and education. FS sessions were conducted in a forest setting. The aim of the study was to explore the impact of regular FS sessions led by an external qualified FS leader. The third case study focused on students (age 17-24) with physical and learning difficulties. These students participated in six sessions of FS in a public city park, with a mature woodland area.

The authors present the combined findings from these three case studies in relation to principles of FS in England. The areas they address include: (1) long term process and review; (2) woodland or natural context and relationship to natural world; (3) holistic development of children to improve non-cognitive skills and dispositions for learning; (4) supported risks towards competence; (5) trained and qualified FS practitioners; and (6) a learner-centered approach. They also use the findings of these case studies to support their argument that FS “can represent a space of divergence and freedoms.” They illustrate how discontinuity from everyday experience seems to play an important role in the FS appeal. Other FS-related factors promoting more positive behaviors and attitudes about self include a learner-led ethos, a focus on social relationships, and non-cognitively focused activities. Such factors, along with a suspension of England’s educational norms, seem to support a sense of agency and self-regulation.

English FS is subject to a number of threats due, in large part, to the way it differs from English mainstream educational norms. Yet, it may be these very differences which make it effective in meeting the well-being needs of many students.


Waite, S., Goodenough, A., (2018). What is different about Forest School? Creating a space for an alternative pedagogy. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21(1), 25-44.


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