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.
Permanent link to this resource: https://doi.org/10.24384/xetg-d494
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Supervisors: Butt, Graham; Newton, Richard; Alexander, Patrick
School of EducationFaculty of Humanities and Social Sciences
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