Thesis (Ph.D)

Choices, Choices, Choices: The Nature of Children’s Agency Within a Forest School Context


The use of Forest Schools (FS) to promote outdoor learning has become increasingly popular over the last decade or so. The FS approach embraces a woodland environment and espouses a child-centred pedagogy. Six principles outlining the key features of FS underpin the ways that FS leaders (FSLs) have been trained to uphold the central tenets and generate a constructivist ethos within the outdoor environment. Policy regarding principled FS practice in England, however, can be interpreted and enacted by FSLs and supporting adults in various ways. Much research has focussed on the benefits and outcomes for participants of FS, however there has been no investigation into the multiple ways that child-centred learning is exemplified within a FS context, and the range of adult practices that promote this. Characterising child-centredness as child agency, this research sought to explore how, where and when children’s agency was evidenced within FS settings. This research project was designed to adopt an ethnographic approach within an interpretivist paradigm. The research strategy investigated adults’ perceptions of child-centredness along with the ways their behaviours in FS session promoted this through dialogue with children. Three primary school settings, whose FSLs were members of the school staff, had trained through the same provider, and delivered FS to children aged 5-7 years within the same rural county, were invited to participate. Data were gathered from four FSLs, two teaching assistants (TAs) and 38 children, through adult and child interviews, alongside audio recordings of dialogic interactions during FS visits. The analysis incorporated multiple theoretical lenses to provide an in-depth scrutiny of interactions including positional identity, Mercer’s tripartite model of talk, Bruner’s definition of agency and descriptors of child-centredness from FS guidance documentation. A three-staged analysis provided a framework that enabled a comparison of FSLs’ (and TAs’) conceptualisations of the FS approach with their practice and children’s reported experiences, in order to examine the nature of child-centredness within this outdoor context. FSLs, TAs and children each held varied perspectives regarding child-centredness, which appeared to influence the nature of learning within the FS sessions. Whilst FSLs enthusiastically advocated a child-centred pedagogy, their beliefs were not always congruent with their practice. Adult-child verbal interactions which occurred during the ‘child-led’ aspect of visits appeared to illustrate how more opportunities were offered for children to actively engage in the learning process, which contrasted starkly with interaction and dialogue during activities which were adult-initiated or -led (usually, but not invariably at the onset of sessions). Aspects of the FS principles of child-centredness were partially evident within adult-child talk, however there were many missed opportunities where the potential for children to construct meaning for themselves was constrained. Within the settings observed, child-centredness appears to relate predominantly to choices children are able to make about what they do within specified periods of ‘child-led’ time; children reported a wide range of self-initiated activities and some opportunities to direct and shape their own FS experience. However, both adults and children still appeared to privilege adult-directed learning over unfettered exploration, which reifies current discourses about the value of play versus structured learning. In tension with the FS ethos it appeared that children constructing understanding as competent agents of their own development was quite frequently limited. A number of recommendations were proposed with respect to these findings, relating to FSL training as well as reflective practice following qualification.

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Martin-Millward, Tracey


Supervisors: McGregor, Debra; Butt, Graham; Newton, Richard; Alexander, Patrick

Oxford Brookes departments

School of Education
Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences


Year: 2020

© Martin-Millward, Tracey
Published by Oxford Brookes University
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