Outdoor Education and the “Growth” of Forest Schools

Outdoor Education and the growth of Forest Schools in recent years is in part a response to a perceived detachment of children from the natural world, the concern with increases in childhood obesity and a reaction to a result driven narrowing of the curriculum. It has been adopted or added to existing approaches in schools specifically for children with special educational needs and disabilities and is a very popular approach to engaging pupils with social, emotional and mental health issues (SEMH) who are often permanently excluded from mainstream provision.

Or maybe it is just recognising that as a species we first come to know the world through sensory and physical experiences and anyhow is it all that new?

The pivotal role of the outdoors in a child’s education was recognised towards the end of the eighteenth century in the Romantic Movement, a reaction through art, literature and philosophy to the rationalisation of nature through the impact of the industrial revolution. This revolution rapidly transformed agricultural England creating an exodus of self- sufficient people from the countryside to sprawling new towns where slum conditions denied access to the countryside, fresh air and healthy exercise. Before 1760 and the onset of industrialisation, the population of the British Isles was less than nine million with a million of those living in London, but in contrast between 1774 and1831 the population of Manchester grew by 230, 000 alone. The cities, filled with workers often made redundant by agricultural changes, became choked with smoke from mill chimneys and seemed to cut their populations off from any connection with the natural world.

In response to this Romanticism stated that a close connection to nature was mentally and morally healthy, and Rousseau argued in “Emile” that it was only through nature that a life of virtue was possible, and that education should begin not with books but with interactions with the world to develop the senses and draw inferences from them. Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi adopted Romanticism in his approach to education believing that every aspect of a child’s life contributed to the formation of personality, character and reason reflecting the Romantic emphasis on feelings and imagination as equally valid.

Contemporaries of Rousseau included Friedrich Froebel, the German educator and inventor of the kindergarten system, whose philosophy placed an emphasis upon education through outdoor and seasonal activities, learning through meaningful play and the use of natural materials.

This emphasis on the development of the senses as the starting block of a young child’s education, and the recognition of the role of the outdoors as a stimulus for these senses was recognised by Maria Montessori, who argued for the development of teacher training along Froebelian lines and drew upon the ideas of Rousseau and Pestalozzi. Montessori is relevant to outdoor learning for children with SEMH because of her interest in the needs of those identified as difficult to educate and opinion that it was vital to create interest enough to engage the child’s whole personality.

Montessori taught skills not by repetition, but by developing exercises that functioned like a ladder allowing children to pick up the challenge and judge their progress. Outdoor learning recognises this with its emphasis on child- initiated learning within a constant environment which allows the revisiting of tasks.

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century the great tradition of the public school within Britain linked outdoor learning with character building, usually through harshness rather than pleasure, with the aim of keeping the chosen few fit for war and ready to maintain the Empire across the world. The 1944 Education Act recognised the importance of the outdoors as a vehicle for personal development, but there was very little academic evidence available to support this at the time.

In the twentieth century outdoor learning also grew out of a response to a rise in the cases of tuberculosis before the Second World War, with the opening of schools that allowed children to get as much fresh air as possible by spending much of their day outside and perhaps sleeping outside or in wards which were open to the elements.

With the decline in TB cases the focus of these schools shifted towards the more general benefits of fresh air and exercise, but with a very narrow focus on disabled children or those with more specific health issues.

The actual idea or philosophy of Forest Schools as a specific idea originated in the Scandinavian countries during the 1950s, drawing strongly upon Rousseau’s idea of the importance of the development of the senses and the Romantic ideal of a life led close to nature, through an emphasis on a philosophy that sees a child’s contact with nature and the natural world as a vital factor in their development. By the 1980s the Forest Schools philosophy was being integrated into the Danish Pre-School Early Education programme for children under seven years old. It is now firmly embedded in the Danish education system and has been so for three generations.

The Forest School philosophy arrived in Britain from Denmark in the 1990s ironically coinciding with an acknowledgement within society that children were not able to access the outdoor environment as freely as previous generations, and that outdoor play was valuable for children to integrate cognitive, emotional and social behaviours. Ironically at this time as young people felt divorced from the natural environment the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio had recognised the emotional and sensory element of caring for the planet and had issued a list of environmental educational guidelines to the world.

On its arrival in Britain the Forest School approach gained momentum and official credibility very quickly; by the “noughties” the “Every Child Matters “initiative incorporated within the 2004 Education Act supported a much more holistic view of child development, OFSTED were highlighting the role of outdoor learning in good practice and the Department for Education released a “Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto”. At the same time similar official recognition was taking place within Scotland with the publication of “A Curriculum for Excellence” which included outdoor learning in its focus on the learning experience of the student, highlighting its role in the importance of  challenge, breadth, enjoyment and depth, as well as linking it to the successful outcomes of creating successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors to society.

The Forest Schools philosophy is a specific approach and can be defined by certain factors that identify outdoor learning and distinguish it from outdoor lessons. Firstly, the setting is different and not the usual one for the student and it is also in an area chosen to be as safe as possible to facilitate the student’s risk taking. The advocates of Forest Schools argue that if an education system aspires to a whole child approach then the classroom is ultimately limited in its capacity to foster real world interaction with people and places, and that it is the outdoors that allows for sensory development as it can engage and integrate all senses and multiple intelligences which cannot be done in a classroom. This is especially relevant to children with SEMH who often have long periods of absenteeism from education and have usually rejected formalised teaching. The building of a sensory garden, the establishment of allotments and the use of wooded areas surrounding schools for cooking over open fires helps these pupils to re-engage with staff and accept a role for education in their lives. Risk taking too is important in the development of the whole child and as such is an element of Forest Schools because it recognises that children have an appetite for risk that needs to be fed. Risk exposure is a moral requirement because children need to learn how to handle the challenges that life may throw at them.

Forest Schools is specifically about creating a long- term connection with a local area and is in stark contrast to the role of outdoor education over the last fifty years which saw pupils on outdoor education courses away from their home with people and places they never saw again. It is argued that learning through a local landscape that becomes slowly more familiar and comfortable creates a caring attitude and a sense of identity sprung from belonging.

Effective outdoor learning is characterised by its experiential nature where pupils seek answers to questions raised by their own curiosity which promotes independent learning and responsibility. It recognises, by how it can integrate separate subject areas, the interdisciplinary nature of the real world making it more relevant for a child by building up real life skills. Outdoor learning focuses on active not passive learning; direct experience rather than passive receiving in an environment where knowledge is not only acquired through the intellect.

But in our competitive standard driven education climate outdoor learning must fit within the demands of the National Curriculum rather than as an extra, and counter charges are that it distracts and entertains rather than informs. It is important to not over romanticise outdoor learning and to move away from the tangible to the overblown hyperbole. It is of course possible to venture into the outdoors and discover very little and so planning should use the outdoors as an educative facilitator that allows pupils to learn something they did not know before rather than something the teacher knows. Inversely and ironically too much “fun” could result in the loss of a learning focus which means that behaviour is better but are pupils learning? The special ingredient that makes outdoor learning work is a complicated recipe that requires detailed planning based on clear objectives and measurable outcomes.

Research has show that children with special educational needs particularly those with SEMH do respond to outdoor education or to a closer connection with the natural world. Children who play in natural environments undertake more creative, diverse and imaginative play; which is seen as an important element in children’s development, and those that attend schools or early years provision with outdoor areas including natural spaces have a greater attention capacity. It seems that sometimes outdoor learning and the natural environment reach a child more readily, and release or reveal greater depths than a classroom or manmade environment can. For some children with SEN the natural environment reduces the high levels of stress and anxiety that they live with.

SEMH includes attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and children with ADHD demonstrate overactive behaviour, impulsive behaviour and difficulty in paying attention. They often find it difficult to fit in at school and make friends, and while some symptoms, such as attention difficulties, may improve as the child gets older, behavioural problems such as “disobedience” and “aggression” may become worse if not addressed. Research has consistently shown a reduction in the symptomatic severity of ADHD in children after engaging in activities in green, natural and open space. The outdoor effect appears to act in these cases as a buffer that moderates the impact of stressful events in the children’s lives. Outdoor learning also addresses the anthropological aspects of children with behavioral issues, as a lack of access to the natural world and the controlled regimentation of modern life leaves little time to develop their own self- reliance. Too much control creates a caged animal mentality, so that children prevented from taking legitimate risks may feel the urge to cross boundaries into antisocial behaviour. Adults may demand children conform to designated areas and activities designed only for them which denies their instinct for adventure.

The development of outdoor learning in one local area as defined within the Forest School philosophy can address issued associated with attachment disorder. Developing a connection with a place provides a starting point for relationships with people within a community that allows further development outcomes, such as understanding the consequences of one’s actions and an ethic of citizenship and care. Involvement in the local landscape over a sustained period creates an ethic of caring that could counter the negativity of attachment disorder in children with SEMH.

Outdoor education may also impact on the behaviour of pupils with SEMH by addressing the issue of “othering” that their situation creates and offset their lack of social capital. A pupil with SEMH and who does not go to a mainstream school is an example of “othering” as they are perceived as being apart. This is compounded by attending alternative provision as such schools have a disproportionate number of pupils from already “othered” groups. Social capital is a measure of the size and quality of an individual’s network, or the number and quality of a person’s connections, and pupils with SEMH can have a severe deficit of positive social capital. Such pupils can suffer from a lack of personal attention from their families or carers that the lengthy process of instilling cultural capital requires, and a lack of social capital can directly affect a young person’s sense of well being. The classroom often reinforces disparities in cultural and social capital as well as entrenching othering, especially as it is where students encounter the curriculum in its’ most discriminatory and structured form. Outdoor education helps address this because the outdoors is leveling and egalitarian, which hopefully allows students to move away from dependency to responsibility and greater self- worth. The opportunity to experience an alternative approach to schooling in an outdoor environment allows them to build social capital in more productive fields.

Forms of outdoor learning have always been part of education whether as a specific and defined approach such as in Forest Schools or less formally as pupils extend their classroom into the outside moving between learning environments. For children who find it difficult to manage in formal classroom environments it can also provide an avenue to re-engagement with learning. What are the implications for children with SEN and disabilities?

As mentioned earlier changing the “classroom” is egalitarian and levelling; replacing dependency with responsibility to generate greater self- worth. The effect of this can be that autistic children often isolated in class or silent victims of bullying will work within a team and be protected and supported by the very peers who targeted them. Outdoor Learning develops social intelligence as children become more aware of the needs of others and act appropriately (children medicated for ADHD are often calmer and protective outdoors).

Children with SEMH often equate outdoor learning with an opportunity to play rather than learning addressing a sometimes-under-developed need. Their perception of the lesson purpose as play has a positive impact on their behaviour but often to the detriment of the curriculum. Addressing social rather than curriculum needs goes to the heart of the “chicken and egg” debate on education and SEMH around whether you address behaviour first and education will follow, or if education is a tool that addresses behaviour.

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