Research Summary

Rethinking learning? Challenging and accommodating neoliberal educational agenda in the integration of Forest School into mainstream educational settings

Learning outside the classroom can help children develop important skills for future success in the workplace

The Geographical Journal

Educational experiences for children are sometimes categorized as formal and informal. Formal education tends to be classroom oriented and generally focuses on the acquisition of academic knowledge and skills. Informal education usually occurs outside of the academic classroom and tends to be more experiential.

Two state‐funded primary schools in the UK participated in a study exploring the integration of formal and informal education, and the consequences for children's experiences of learning. Both schools provide a Forest School experience for the students. One school contracted with a local provider to deliver a Forest School experience for all Year 4 students (age 8 -9 ). A woodland space within walking distance of the school is used for this experience. The Forest School experience for the 30 students participating in this study involved six, weekly one‐day sessions facilitated by Forest School practitioners, school staff, and parent helpers. The Forest School experience at the other school was facilitated by the classroom teacher who had been trained in Forest School education. This teacher took her Reception class of 28 children (age 4-5) to a local woodland a short drive away from school. These students experienced six, weekly half days in the forest.

Thirty-three children (15 from the Reception Year class; 18 from the Year 4 class) participated in semi-structured interviews during which they were asked to share their perceptions of classroom learning, outdoor engagement, and Forest School experiences. The Forest School practitioner, the classroom teacher trained in Forest School education, and the Head Teacher for both schools also participated in interviews. They were asked to share their experiences and motivations for incorporating Forest School into their setting.

The children’s responses indicated that they viewed play and education as opposite components of the school day and confined to discrete periods of time. Children in both age groups considered formal education to be serious business, preparing them for such future goals as entrance into the labor market. While the children recognized that they were acquiring knowledge during Forest School, they found it difficult to explain in terms of its importance. They described their experiences during Forest School as being more akin to play or recreation than to work. School staff, too, noted how learning in the classroom, with its emphasis on testing and the curriculum, tended to “confer primacy to the work of mainstream school over the experiential learning that occurs through encounters with the outdoors.” Yet, the teaching staff recognized the value of Forest School in promoting the development of social skills, self-confidence, creativity and problem‐solving – skills needed for meeting the demands of the work force.

This research calls attention to the importance and value of integrating formal and informal approaches to learning. This idea, however, raises crucial questions about who gains access to formal, informal, and blended educational environments. The current English system tends to provide a more diversified curriculum for children who already benefit from being in well‐performing schools. Children in schools considered less successful may not be given the same benefits. “Thus, future research on the potential for alternative approaches to foster skills and knowledge that are valued beyond the curriculum must explore the implications of existing educational inequalities which can leave some children further disadvantaged by the education system.”

Pimlott-Wilson, H., & Coates, J.. (2019). Rethinking learning? Challenging and accommodating neoliberal educational agenda in the integration of Forest School into mainstream educational settings. The Geographical Journal, 185(3), 268-278. doi: