Forest Schools’ are important, however…
8th May 2018
As forest schools become exceedingly popular over here in the United Kingdom (U.K.) I find myself consciously assessing this approach to understand its basis for learning; positive aspirations and opportunities for improvement. Ok, so… at this point some may already be questioning the possibility of any negative stance. You’re already listing in your head all the positive implications this approach provides: It creates resilient, independent learners; it develops curiosity; it builds confidence and provides opportunities for children to be physically active. What possible issues are there? Before discussing this I should clarify here, I’m not questioning the profound skills this approach brings or disregarding the opportunities for children to have positive outdoor experiences I’m more concerned with the challenges we as professionals face while attempting to embed a child-led initiate into a practice that potentially struggles to merge with a continuously decreasing education system.
I want to firstly begin by sharing my own personal experiences. Having had the opportunity to both train and practice within a forest school I was pleasantly surprised. For children in our care this was an ongoing long-term process, where the majority of learning took place through a natural environment that encompassed very independent child-led methods. I had opportunities to observe how each child independently responded to the environment; allowing them to fully take charge of their own learning. I embraced this approach; made the role my own and even found myself learning from our youngsters.
Ironically this form of learning has proven successful in other parts of the world. What I needed to understand therefore was how their approach to education differed when compared to ours here in the U.K. Originating in Denmark, it would seem they have led the way with Forest Schools since the 1980s. You could argue strategies embedded there successfully merged this approach into their formal education system that allows for children to still academically succeed. Upon closer inspection Scandinavian countries such as Denmark have apposed formal education until a child reaches seven. Statistics show that at this age of development children are keen to learn, thus more incline to formally achieve. When you consider the OECD, PISA report the success is clearly highlighted. For instance: Reading; Denmark is thirteenth in the league tables when compared to England which is twenty-six. While I’m certainly not suggesting the Scandinavian education system is not without its flaws. I’m confident there are opportunities to lean from each other.
Despite this it would seem the U.K. could possible take an unequal or opposite approach. Education Ministers are keen to deliver a new baseline assessment; aimed to test the academic abilities of our four year olds (seemingly regurgitating a failed policy from 2015). So, if allowed to go ahead England will be the first and only country in the world to assess our children; to put them in ability groups at the age of four; to potentially, push out play.
So the struggle is clear. A child will go from the freedom of engaging with a natural environment to a classroom where they will have their abilities assessed and tested. This is certainly not the fault of the forest school teaching staff; rather the approaches implemented by government officials. In some ways if we want children to achieve and not become overwhelmed by such immense transitions we have to, on some levels engage with them academically.
Written by Ian Mullock (M.Ed; B.Sc.)