Thursday, May 23

“Sowing the Seed: A Bio-Ecological Exploratory Case Study of the Forest School Approach to Learning and Teaching in the Irish Primary School Curriculum.”

Dr Marie Claire Murphy, Prof. Emer Ring, Dr Lisha O’Sullivan & Dr Kathleen Horgan

Dr Marie Claire Murphy is a primary school teacher in Presentation Junior School, Mullingar. Her PhD research, conducted in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, was concerned with the Forest School approach in the Irish primary school curriculum.

Professor Emer Ring is Dean of Education at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Emer worked as a senior inspector with the Department of Education and Skills, a primary mainstream class teacher and a learning/support resource teacher, prior to joining MIC as Head of Department of Reflective Pedagogy and Early Childhood Studies in 2011.

Dr Lisha O’ Sullivan BA Early Childhood Studies (UCC), Dip. Women’s Studies (UCC) MA Non-Directive Play Therapy (University of York), PhD (University of Cambridge) is Head of Department of Reflective Pedagogy and Early Childhood Studies, Mary Immaculate College. Lisha lectures on the BA Early Childhood Practice, BA Early Childhood Care and Education and Bachelor of Education programmes and supervises undergraduate, Masters and PhD research.

Dr Kathleen Horgan is a member of the Faculty of Education, Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick. During her early career she worked as a primary teacher with a specialism in early years education. She subsequently held the position of Education Officer with the non-governmental development agency, Trócaire. During this period, she devised curricula and provided professional development for teachers in Ireland and the UK in the areas of social justice education and development education.


Emergent research notes an increase in awareness of the importance of time spent in nature for personal well-being during the Covid-19[1] pandemic (Rousseau and Deschacht 2020; Samuelsson et al. 2020). Preliminary findings from the Play and Learning in the Early Years (PLEY) survey (Mary Immaculate College (MIC) 2020) indicate an increase in time spent playing outdoors for many children during this time. However, these patterns of change may potentially revert once the Covid-19 crises passes (Rousseau and Deschacht 2020).

The authors suggest that these changed patterns in children’s play now present a unique opportunity for education systems to harness the well-documented benefits of learning in outdoor environments. Since education is a determining factor in shaping a child’s perception of nature (Aktepe 2015; Walker 2017), weaving the possibilities inherent in the Forest School (FS) approach through children’s education experiences presents an opportunity to redesign practice with a focus on resilience, well-being, and sustainability (Bhattacharya and Stern 2020).

The Forest School (FS) concept was founded by a team of academics at Bridgwater and Taunton College, Somerset, UK after an exchange visit to Denmark in 1993 (Cree and McCree 2013).

During this trip, the founders were inspired by the “Friluftsliv” open-air culture that permeates early years education there. “Friluftsliv” is a Norwegian tradition for seeking the joy of identification with free nature and challenges patterns of thought, values, and lifestyle imposed by modernity (Faarlund 2007). Although FS adheres to key features and guiding principles, there is no formal curriculum. Instead, FS leaders are taught to combine key principles of FS with environmental and nature education, child development, wild, free, and therapeutic play during FS leadership continuing professional development (CPD) (Forest School Ireland 2021).

A growing number of empirical research studies outline benefits for learning through the FS approach. These include measured risk taking through participation in authentic real-life tasks (Maynard 2007; Elliott 2015; Harris 2017), social and communication skills during cooperative learning (Swarbrick et al. 2004; Ridgers et al. 2012; Waite et al. 2015; Harris 2017), gross and fine motor skill development (O’Brien 2009; Ridgers et al. 2012; Waite et al. 2015; Turtle et al. 2015) and improvement in physical development and stamina (Ridgers et al. 2012; Turtle et al. 2015).

  1. Coronavirus is an infectious disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  2. The findings of these studies also argue that FS is well placed to deliver curricular learning objectives (O’Brien 2009; Mackinder 2017; Coates and Pimlott-Wilson 2019). However, criticisms are evident, namely the need for the development of more robust theoretical frameworks (Knight 2018; Leather 2018),replicable research methods (Slade et al. 2013; Leather 2013; 2018) and studies in contexts other than the United Kingdom (UK) (see for example Cumming and Nash 2015; Elliott 2015; Turtle et al. 2015; Waite et al. 2015; Harris 2017; Mackinder 2017; Coates and Pimlott-Wilson 2019). This study therefore sought to address these identified deficiencies through exploring the FS approach in the context of the Irish Primary School Curriculum (PSC) and interrogate if learning through this approach is appropriate to achieve the Irish PSC vision, aims, principles, broad objectives, subject content objectives, concepts and skill development, and assessment?

The Research Question

While the Irish PSC and the FS approach have much in common, child-centred messages that underpin the Irish PSC may become displaced under the weight of the many subject areas and prescribed learning objectives (O’Rourke 2018).

Figure 1. Aims of the Irish Primary School Curriculum (National Council for Curriculum and Assessment 1999)

Meanwhile, the broad guiding principles of the FS approach detailed in Figure 2 below can result in a variety of interpretations.

Figure 2. Six Guiding Principles of Forest School (Forest School Association 2018)

This study explored whether the guiding principles of the FS approach could contribute to the Irish PSC’s vision, aims, principles, broad objectives, subject content objectives, concepts, skill development, and assessment approaches. Therefore, the research question was, “How do children in senior infants, second class, fourth class and fifth class and their teachers perceive the impact of the introduction of Forest School sessions on learning and teaching in an Irish primary school?” The study was contextualised and guided by Bronfenbrenner’s Bio-ecological Model (1979; Bronfenbrenner and Morris 1998; 2006), Dewey’s educational theories (1916; 1933; 1934; 1938a; 1938b; 1958), Beard and Wilson’s Learning Combination Lock (LCL) (2018), Cornell’s (1998) Flow Learning, and Lave and Wegner’s (2016) Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).

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The Methodology

Children and their teachers from senior infants, second, fourth and fifth class took part in the study. There was a total of eighty-four children in the four classes. Consent was obtained for sixty-eight of these children to be involved in the study and fifty-five children then provided assent. Five class teachers participated in the study. Data were collected throughout the 2018 and 2019 academic year. It was envisioned that each class would

spend one and a half hours learning in the forest every week for ten weeks. Sixty hours contact time was planned, however due to unavoidable circumstances related to participants, this was reduced to forty-six and a half hours. Non-participant semi-structured observations of each FS session, semi-structured journey interviews with fifty-five children, semi-structured interviews incorporating pedagogical documentation (work completed by the child, to co- construct knowledge) (Dahlberg 2012; Rinaldi 2012), with five class teachers, and researcher memoing were employed to collect data (Crotty 1998; Cohen et al. 2000; 2011; Blaikie 2010; Scotland 2012;

Thomas 2013; Simon and Goes 2013; Silverman 2014; Patton 2015;

Galvin 2016; O’Toole 2016; Walliman 2018; Yin 2018; Miles and

Huberman 2019).

The Findings

The first theme emerging from the study was “Learning With, In, and Through the Environment during Forest School”.

The teachers, who had limited CPD in outdoor education, responded

positively to FS overall. Most[2] of the children enjoyed learning through discovery, guided, and active learning methods, the provision of choice, and play in the space of the forest. The broad, child-centred vision, aims, and principles of the Irish PSC were achieved through child-led and adult-facilitated learning and teaching opportunities.

While FS provided opportunities to learn about nature and consider sustainable approaches to living, the achievement of curricular objectives was observed most often in Physical Education (PE) and Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE). A higher incidence of achieving individual subject learning outcomes was evident in the senior infant class.

Assessment occurred through child-led reflection and some teachers created connections with school-based lessons, which was effective in providing integrated learning experiences for children. However, a need for proactive and intentional planning, in balance with reflexive practice during FS was identified in which all professionals are aware of their roles.

Therefore, while learning occurred with, in, and through the environment, there was further potential to integrate curricular learning outcomes throughout all subject areas.

The second theme that emerged was “Challenges of Learning and Teaching Outdoors in the Context of the Irish Primary School Curriculum”.

A range of challenges was identified and included funding, insurance, weather and clothing, and class sizes. Costs required to implement FS in the context of this Irish primary school included the price of transportation to and from the forest each week. Suitable insurance policies which covered FS activities proved challenging to secure. Moreover, the local city council required proof of insurance for permission to use the land.

In this study, the FS leader provided this insurance herself. While one class teacher, felt that FS provided children with opportunities to engage in learning outdoors regardless of the weather, seven children listed “rain” as an aspect of FS that they did not enjoy and access to appropriate weather-proof clothing proved challenging in this study. The FS leader noted that it was difficult to maintain FS guiding principles in traditional Irish primary school classes due to class sizes and the ratio of children to adults. Two children agreed that this resulted in having to “wait for everybody”.

The final theme was “Inclusion for Children with Diverse Learning Needs and Interests during Forest School”.

The class teachers felt that children who lacked interest in school responded positively as FS provided an opportunity to demonstrate abilities through a variety of modalities. However, some[3] children demonstrated aversions to the forest, and the inclusion of all children in FS experiences was closely associated with class teachers’ beliefs, school policy, and staffing. A need to communicate with parent(s)/guardian(s) to prepare children for learning in the forest was also apparent. Challenges to cultivating inclusive practice during FS included children’s discomfort to stimuli in the forest, namely: nettle stings and insect bites, getting their hands dirty, getting wet in the stream, falling, and toileting outdoors.

The Recommendations

While the guiding principles of FS are grounded in a playful approach to teaching (Forest School Association (FSA) 2018), a need for proactive and intentional planning, in balance with reflexive practice is required to incorporate a variety of play types in each outdoor session. Therefore, class teachers’ understanding of learning during FS is necessary to prepare and provide supports which enable children to learn outdoors. The inclusion of this approach to learning and teaching through CPD opportunities has the potential to provide class teachers with foundational knowledge in outdoor pedagogy.

Learning during FS provided children with opportunities to learn about nature, while considering sustainable approaches to living. Child-led assessment and reflective methods were the main assessment approaches observed. However, incidences in which members of the school staff created connections with school-based lessons created integrated learning experiences and provided children with skills that facilitated a transfer of learning. Thus, cyclical processes of planning, observation, and reflection can support the attainment of curricular subject learning outcomes.

While most[4] of the children had visited a forest, few[5] were familiar with the FS approach to learning and teaching. Thus, in order for learning and teaching outdoors to begin at the child’s lived experience, it is imperative that the child’s voice is incorporated in a curriculum co- constructed with class teachers/forest school leaders and children.

  1. Fifty out of fifty-five children
  2. Fifteen

[4 Twenty-eight

[5] Thirteen

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Positive rapports between class teachers/FS leaders and children provide a foundation for the creation of learning habits, such as routines and behavioural expectations, which are responsive to space and place and mindful of sensory stimulation (NCCA) 2009; Lave and Wenger 2016; Beard and Wilson 2018; Mitchell 2019). However, confusion regarding the role of class teachers in supporting children’s engagement can be challenging in the FS setting. Providing for all children’s engagement in FS begins with collegial collaboration, communication, and support in which both class teacher and forest school leader share an understanding of expectations to provide each other with professional moral support (Department of Education and Skills (DESb) 2017; Ahead 2021; Cree and Robb 2021; National Council for Special Education (NCSE) 2021a). Furthermore, consultation with children and their parent(s)/guardian(s) to create class or individual behavioural contracts can provide ownership over strategies to support the child’s learning during FS (DESb 2017; Cree and Robb 2021; NCSE 2021b).

Although previous literature outlines benefits of the FS approach for children with specific learning needs (Louv 2009; Roe and Aspinall 2011; Waite et al. 2015; Williams 2017), policy and practice have moved towards a universal design for learning, which considers multiple means of engagement with new learning, multiple means of representation of new information, and multiple means of action and expression to demonstrate new learning (Ahead 2020).

Reference List

Support for all learners should be formed along a continuum, and resources should be provided once barriers to learning become evident (European Agency on Special Needs and Inclusive Education (EASNIE) 2017).

While the effectiveness of incorporating Scandinavian approaches to learning and teaching was questioned in previous studies (Leather 2013; 2018; Lloyd et al. 2018), an incorporation of Irish cultural and heritage traditions alongside this Scandinavian approach has the potential to situate learning and teaching within the child’s lived experience to create curricular connections with the natural environment during FS (Cree and Robb 2021). Moreover, education situated in the local environment is particularly powerful to understand climate change processes (O’Dwyer 2022), thus addressing recent departmental concerns regarding the need for pedagogical guidance in education for sustainable development (ESD) (NCCA 2020; DESb 2022b).

Learning and teaching outdoors requires additional funding. Equipment, such as tarpaulin for shelter, toileting supplies, firewood and tools which include flint and steel, ropes and blades are necessary to provide suitable learning and teaching experiences outdoors. Funding is required for spare clothing and transportation to the forest. Although the forest school leader’s fees were subsidised by the Heritage Council through the Heritage in Schools Scheme (2020), currently there is no departmental policy regarding funding for learning and teaching outdoors (Madden 2019; Moore 2019).

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