The forest school approach and the primary school curriculum - Project | Heritage in Schools

The forest school approach and the primary school curriculum

Angie Kinsella 1
Mary Immaculate College, Limerick

MarieClaire (Claire) Murphy is a primary school teacher, forest school leader and a PhD researcher in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. Thanks to funding from the Heritage in Schools scheme, Claire is currently working collaboratively with a Forest School Leader to bring a high-quality learning experience to primary school children. Here Claire shares some of her research with us.

One in six Irish parents don’t think it’s safe for their five-year-old child to play outside at home during the day (Early Childhood Ireland 2019). Children may experience ‘nature’ by exploring a virtual environment in video games and use survival skills to stay safe, but research shows that children feel continuously isolated and use computer games and TV as 'electronic friends' (Heerwagan and Orians 2002).

Forest School occurs as a weekly session in the child’s standard preschool or primary school context. The differences between the overarching term of ‘outdoor education’ and ‘forest school’ lie within the theoretical underpinnings that shape these learning approaches; namely the six principles of forest school and the ‘friluftsliv’ concept (Waite et al 2015). The primary aim of Forest School is the development of children’s self-esteem, self-confidence and independence skills. A second aim is to encourage children to appreciate, care for and respect the natural environment (Maynard 2007). Taking risks is also an important element of this approach. The learners engage in activities such as building shelters, cooking on camp fires and identifying plant and wildlife (Harris 2017). The focus of the scheme is on the whole child and their experiences, thus developing the child’s independence and self-esteem through their engagement with the natural environment (Murray and O’Brien 2005).

I am currently exploring the forest school approach in the Irish primary school curriculum. I observed children from four different class levels engage in learning during forest school. Children from senior infants, 2nd Class, 4th Class and 5th Class had the opportunity to attend 10 forest school sessions during their school day thanks to the Heritage in Schools scheme. The forest school sessions occurred in a local woodland setting regardless of the weather. The children learned how to light, maintain and cook on an open campfire. They climbed trees and constructed swings from rope. The children learned the art of foraging natural materials and branches and natural materials were gathered to build shelter. Children were also engaged in whittling and used the bow-saw to make their own wooden ‘cookies’.

I was interested to hear the children and the class teacher’s perspectives on this experience. One class teacher noted;

“I really enjoyed it and I think the kids really enjoyed it too. Just that opportunity to be outdoors and to be connecting with nature which is something a lot of our children especially, don’t get the opportunity to do. Like, the amount of children, when we started climbing the trees on the first day, actually said ‘I never climbed a tree’. That really shocked me because as a child I was always out climbing trees or out in the fields or stuff like that, but they just never had and a lot of them were very hesitant to climb but at the end they were really loving it”

Other class teachers reacted to the specific approach in forest school;

“I think, the whole point when you are bringing kids outdoors, and you’re trying to expose them to it, I think it needs to be guided but more importantly it needs to be self-discovery and that’s what I got I suppose from the Forest School”

“I feel like a lot of the children in our school are spending a massive amount of time indoors and I think anything that brings them outside would be a positive thing, and I guess the freeness of what they are learning as well, that it’s kind of led by them, and it’s not a necessarily a sit and listen activity, that it’s lead by what they discover, and what they feel like doing on a particular day”

The children’s perspectives are of huge importance in this study also. Their perspectives were recorded through walking ‘journey’ interviews. Some children noted their thoughts about forest school and what they learned during this experience;

“it was nice to be outdoors”

“I learned about plants, I learned about more stuff about plants and I learned that you have to work in teamwork with others”

“I think it was fun and I was trying to like find the leaves at my garden outside and picking them all up and seeing if I could remember the names”

“we can learn while moving so I don’t have to get stuck in the claustrophobic seats next to a girl who copies my work on tests!”