A local school recently tweeted that at Forest School the children had “learnt about bioaccumulation through a game with foxes and mice.” Similarly today the Brookes undergraduates in Early Childhood and Education Studies learned how to make a standing-up giant, paint on trees, and how to pace a storytelling session and what to do when the sun is in your eyes.
I don’t begrudge anyone their learning, obviously – here, or in the woods around a school, or on a walk in the Botanic Garden or (as we did a year ago) on a trip with our MA students around local parks, looking at design and purpose. Bioaccumulation is a good thing to know about; linking the wind in the trees with the listening skills vital for acquisition of skills in phonics is good, too; the practical skills of painting with mud, the health and safety aspects of transporting large logs, the content and context of telling a story about a Hallowe’en pumpkin – these are useful in their place. They will all be even more useful when applied, reflected on, maybe even when they supply material for assessed work.
But a purist voice in my ear asks are these Forest School? What makes Outdoor learning – even learning in a wood – Forest School? For me the tension is around how I “teach about Forest School,” when I find that the easiest thing to do is show activities that might occur in Forest School, which tends to mean we do adult (i.e. me) led activities, when some of the best times I’ve had with children in Forest School have been tree-climbing, den-making : things that children have chosen and devised. Should I be making opportunities for my (mostly young) adult learners just to sit, or climb, or muck about? Is mucking about a part of the curriculum?
Perhaps rather than trying for a false dichotomy here, we might look at curriculum as something richer than frameworks for learning, or even intent, implementation, and impact. What might curriculum be, if the Forest is not an extra-curricular activity? If we look at the Oxfordshire local outdoor centre, Hill End, and their statement on Forest School there is much to ponder. This seems to me to be at the heart of their thinking:
Forest School sessions are practical and primarily child led. The emphasis is on the development of self-esteem, communication and social skills, personal responsibility and citizenship. These skills feedback positively into other areas of work in schools and settings. When embedded in the setting’s curriculum Forest School enriches and links to all areas of development and learning.
and to move from the windswept smiles of the undergraduates this morning and this afternoon to look at this in a bit of detail, two phrases stick out for me: practical and primarily child led and [t]hese skills feedback positively into other areas of work in schools and settings. In other words one of the markers of Forest School is the child-initiated activity, and another is that skills, rather than primarily content are what feed back into school.
Does this invalidate the experience in which the educator follows the learners’ interests? No, but what has given me pause for thought was the first year student whose comments this morning showed her perspicacity. In distinguishing (as she did) between “fun” and “engagement” she laid bare one of the most important issues facing outdoor education that follows something of the Forest School ideal. Primarily child-led, but a powerful element in enriching school-based learning. Not every student can do this so early in their course; not every teacher or pedagogic critic can do it either.
Curriculum is not a simple set of stepping stones of skills or a navigable maze of knowledge, although knowledge and skills are certainly there, but a complex mix of both – and more: it is only really understood where context is also explicitly planned for and understood.
And this is where the mistakes of some of my students emerge: they confuse engagement with fun, and both with notions of child-led exploration. Too easy to think about “getting children” to build a den, rather than letting them do it. Getting rather than letting, as if value comes with adult input.
And maybe I get confused too: in trying to sell Forest School, do I go for fun over engagement, my planning over student enthusiasm, and in the words of Francis Thompson, “miss the many-splendoured thing”?