Same Actors, Undecided Roles: Towards an Understanding of Forest Schools as Sites of Knowledge Construction

Building on a rich history of outdoor learning, forest schools represent a distinctive educational approach that has emerged in the UK over the past 17 years (Garden and Downes, 2021). The approach generally aims to develop confidence through opportunities to engage in hands on learning experiences in a woodland environment. However, forest schools originated from the Danish concept of ‘udeskole’ meaning ‘outdoor school’, which is practised by most schools across Scandinavia (Knight, 2013). In these contexts, the outdoor environment is a significantly appreciated aspect of the school curriculum. For example, Danish schools emphasise real life learning through curriculum subjects such as nature/technology (Nature/Technology, 2018). Whilst UK curricula also reference outdoor spaces, their value is not explicitly foregrounded in the same way. This leads to something of a lacuna in the validation of UK forest schools because they cannot be recontextualised in a way that is sympathetic to the original idea. As such, UK forest schools often appear to act in tension with official discourses of knowledge and learning in a way that Scandinavian approaches do not.


This paper aims to provide a theoretical lens through which to examine this tension and ways in which new educational spaces can be formed, contested and colonised beyond the classroom. I make no claims to the learning efficacy of such spaces per se rather aiming to demonstrate that such spaces create conditions in which new interactions, rituals and practices can be constructed that can lead to different learning experiences and the construction of qualitatively different kinds of knowledge to those offered by more formal learning spaces (Garden, 2022). As such, we see the tension between classroom spaces and outdoor spaces as something to be celebrated. I argue that forest schools should be seen as a ‘third space’ that exist between the highly ritualised spaces that constitute classrooms and the more fluid, flexible spaces that constitution home life. As such, forest schools can be seen as new spaces where existing roles are subverted, and familiar actors are required to construct new identities and practices. This has the potential to create new opportunities for the construction of knowledge within the forest school and beyond.