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The Hare and the Tortoise go to Forest School: Taking the scenic route to academic attainment via emotional wellbeing outdoors

Summary


Young children from disadvantaged backgrounds participating in a 3-year Forest School show increased well-being and academic development

This study explored the concept that, for disadvantaged children, wellbeing through outdoor learning plays an important role in school-readiness and achievement. Using a theory of change as a framework, researchers explored the impact of a Forest School intervention program on participating children’s nature connection, emotional well-being and academic development.

Eleven children from disadvantaged backgrounds participated in the study. The children’s teacher recommended them for the project, based on her assessment of the children as “struggling to thrive” and likely to underachieve. The children were all considered to be economically and emotionally disadvantaged and had special education needs, including behavioral difficulties. Their home lives were known to include elements of stress, trauma and complex family relationships. The children — aged 5-7 at the beginning of the study and 7-10 at the end of the study – attended weekly Forest School and outdoor learning sessions over a three-year period. Multiple assessments involving the children, the teaching team, the project practitioners, and some parents were used to evaluate the impact of the program. These assessments included annual interviews with each child and two in-depth case studies with two of the children. Additional assessments included questionnaires completed by the children, parents and staff before and after the program. As children exited the program, they also completed the Connection to Nature Index. Staff participated in focus group discussions each term during the program. Field notes, observations, and measures of wellbeing and involvement collected during each weekly session were additional sources of data.

Positive outcomes for the children included an increase in well-being and academic development. Indicators of increased well-being were evident in changes in children’s self-regulation and resilience, which appeared to be supported by “emotional space” — defined as “the provision of a physical space and time in which the children are free to be themselves and express their emotions.” Results also included increased confidence for learning and connection to nature. These results were reflected in children’s increasing confidence outdoors and in having them recognized as “wild experts” at school. Positive results were also evident in academic outcomes. Though not a controlled study, by the end of the program, the academic development of the participating children compared favorably with their non-Forest School participating peers. According to the children, their parents and the school team, the Forest School experience played a major role in these positive gains.

This research suggests that the children’s social development and emotional wellbeing were supported by regular outdoor sessions alongside skilled practitioners. This research also supports the idea of looking to outdoor learning as an effective intervention for young children with disadvantaged backgrounds.

Citation

McCree, M., Cutting, R., Sherwin, D., (2018). The Hare and the Tortoise go to Forest School: Taking the scenic route to academic attainment via emotional wellbeing outdoors. Early Child Development and Care, 188(7), 980-996.

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