076: Are forest schools any better for children than regular schools?

If you’ve been following the show for a while now, you’ll know that my daughter and I LOVE to spend time outside. I looked at the research on the benefits of outdoor play for young children, and in my interview with Dr. Scott Sampson on his book How to Raise a Wild Child, so I am already convinced of its benefits for young children.

So doesn’t it go without saying that these benefits will continue for older children, and that if we allowed school-aged children to spend more time outside then all kinds of improved learning outcomes would follow?

When I started digging into the research I was shocked by what I found. Studies employing poor-quality methodology abound. I’m not sure a control group exists in the whole lot of them. And “results” are measured in terms of how much students like the program, or how much their self-esteem has improved (as subjectively measured by a teacher’s evaluation).

One of the best papers I found on the topic was written by Dr. Mark Leather — it acknowledges the potential benefits of forest schools while removing the rose-tinted glasses to clearly see the limitations of the research base on this topic as well. So invited Dr. Leather onto the show to explore what are forest schools, what may be their benefits, and whether he would send his child to one…


Aasen, W., Torunn, L., & Waters, J. (2009). The outdoor environment as a site for children’s participation, meaning-making and democratic learning: Examples from Norwegian kindergartens. Education 71(1), 5–13.

Cumming, F., & Nash, M. (2015). An Australian perspective of forest school: Shaping a sense of place to support learning. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning 15J(4), 296–309.

MacEachren, Z. (2018). First Nation pedagogical emphasis on imitation and making the stuff of life: Canadian lessons for indigenizing Forest Schools. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 21, 89–102.

Maciver, T. (2011) Developing practice and delivering a Forest School programme for children identified as gifted and talented. In S. Knight (Ed.)., Forest School for all (pp.41–53). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Morgan, A. (2018). Culturing the fruits of the forest: Realizing the multifunctional potential of space and place in the context of woodland and/or Forest Schools. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 21, 117–130.

Murray, R., & O’Brien, L. (2005, October). ‘Such enthusiasm — A joy to see’: An evaluation of Forest School in England. Forest Research & NEF. Retrieved from: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/documents/1418/ForestSchoolEnglandReport.pdf

Murray, R. (2003, November). A Forest School evaluation project: A study in Wales. NEF. Retrieved from: https://www.forestresearch.gov.uk/research/forest-schools-impact-on-young-children-in-england-and-wales/education-and-learning-evaluation-of-forest-schools-phase-1-wales/

O’Brien, L., & Murray, R. (2006). “A marvelous opportunity for children to learn”: A participatory evaluation of Forest School in England and Wales. Forestry Commission England & Forest Research. Retrieved from: http://www.outdoorrecreationni.com/publication/benefits-of-outdoor-recreation/social-development-learning-2/a-marvellous-opportunity-for-children-to-learn-obrien-murray-2006/

Sharmaa-Brymer, V., Brymer, E., Gray, T., & Davids, K. (2018). Affordances guiding Forest School practice: The application of the ecological dynamics approach. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education 21, 103–115.

Suggate, S.P. (2012). Watering the garden before a rainstorm: The case of early reading instruction. In S. Suggate and E. Reese (Eds.), Contemporary debates in childhood education and development (pp.181–190). Abingdon, England: Routeledge.

Wicks, R. (2011). Forest School and looked after children. In S. Knight (Ed.)., Forest School for all (pp.153–161). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Williams-Siegfredsen, J. (2012). Understanding the Danish Forest School approach: Early years education in practice. London, U.K.: Routeledge.

Originally published at Your Parenting Mojo.