Forest Schools in Australia? Is it time to consider place-based outdoor learning as more than a drag and drop approach?

There has been a recent interest in the Forest School movement in Australia. Here is some background of the Outdoor Connections team and a link to a recent paper written by Amanda, along with her PhD supervisors.

Forest School in Australia is a controversial topic. Where do you stand? Yes? No? Somewhere in the middle? A blend of what you already do? Part of a puzzle of training?

No matter where you stand on the issue there is no doubt that the intentions of Forest School training and practice are great! Essentially, it is about getting kids outside more often in meaningful ways. BUT there are a few things to consider namely:

* We need to acknowledge the actual origins of Forest School come from Scandinavian outdoor learning.
* The practices of the UK Forest School model are from a vastly different physical environment, weather and culture.
* If Forest School is about connecting children to the outdoors, we should be connecting children to their local outdoor environment – in local ways.
* Especially in schools, what is the underlying pedagogy for outdoor learning?

Where do Outdoor Connections two founders sit with this issue?

Interestingly, Amanda and Penny were two of Australia’s first Forest School Trained Practitioners. Narrowly missing each other on courses back in 2009. True story, to this day we wonder how they both ended up living in a town of 3000 people? We don’t know but lucky us and lucky town hey!

A decade ago, Penny was living In the UK with her family and after her training continued on to run a Forest School in London. She had been living in the UK for an extended period and also completed landscape design, so was very in touch with her surrounds. These experiences have led Penny to work in a variety of outdoor settings in Australia, most recently at Bundanon where her considerable arts based practice comes into it’s own.


To complete her training, Amanda went on a study tour to the UK funded by the ACU Bob and Margaret Frater Scholarship. Notably, Amanda had taught in London for a couple of years as she roamed around the world back in 2001/02 – so the UK education system was known to her. She went on to complete a wall full of certificates in outdoor learning, a superb study tour to Denmark and teach literally hundreds of children outside. Eventually, her Phd focused on place-based outdoor learning in a primary school setting.

Both Amanda and Penny gained considerable amounts from their Forest School training. Additionally, the practical experiences Penny gained in the UK offered her the opportunity to really put the training into practice in context.

Fast forward almost a decade from when Penny and Amanda completed their training and there are many Australian Forest School leaders. Trained both in the UK and Australia, with a variety of training providers. The problem now is how does this “fit” in an Australian cultural, environmental and educational space?

Sure, the Forest School program is wonderful! However, it is just that a “program” with a highly structured set of routines and practices that need to be followed. Adding to the confusion, is our understanding of what and what does not constitute a “Forest School”. Can we learn from the program – absolutely YES! Is it the be all and end all – absolutely NO!

Outdoor Connections prides itself on utilising Forest School practices as part of a very large puzzle of training, experiences and culture. In our holiday and homeschool programs we adapt the training to our very Australian settings. In our teacher PD programs we broaden and theorise this practice into a sound Australian place-based outdoor learning pedagogy. Ours is one of many QUALITY Australian programs that is responsive to place, taking into account childhood development, local community and culture.

What do we really think about outdoor learning/ nature play etc etc etc (insert term here)? Australia trust yourself! We have amazing outdoor educators, nature play practitioners and superb teachers. Look towards OUR culture and environment, explore the links to the valuable Indigenous culture in your area. Value local knowledge and be responsive to place.

Is outdoor learning suitable for Australian schools? You bet!! The early childhood community has embraced it and primary schools are catching on. Outdoor Connections is extremely proud to be able to offer accredited training for teachers. Last weekend in the blazing heat and then rain (so south coast weather!) our group of teachers were super keen to see the spread out outdoor learning in Australia, using place-based pedagogies to inform their practice.

The ever insightful Dr Mark Leather, from the UK started rumbles a few years ago that there was more to outdoor learning than Forest Schools, so he wrote a paper on the topic. He then called for experts in the field to respond to his thinking.

For those of us interested in the academic opinions of Dr Amanda Lloyd and her two PhD supervisors Associate Professor Tonia Gray and Dr Son Truong … here is their response, Place-based outdoor learning: Moe than a drag and drop approach. (Unfortunately, it’s a subscription article so you’ll need to be in a library system to access it… but I suspect those interested will have their means to grab it).

In a nutshell …. Amanda, Tonia and Son say ..

The Forest School movement offers children valuable outdoor experiences; however, pedagogically it is under-theorised and lacking research in diverse contexts. As a result, it has at times become a โ€œdrag and dropโ€ program, which does not necessarily acknowledge local place, environment or culture. Alternatively, place-based outdoor learning is examined as a place-responsive approach, where a year-long outdoor program was implemented and evaluated in an Australian primary school. Place-based outdoor learning is a broader integrated approach that is interconnected with place, curriculum and learners. It re-envisions a perspective on outdoor teaching to individualise meaningful learning in nature, within specific contexts.

Whatever you think about the issue, in the end really the message is simple. Go outside, take the kids with you and have fun!

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2 thoughts on “Forest Schools in Australia? Is it time to consider place-based outdoor learning as more than a drag and drop approach?

  1. Rachelle Worth says:

    How blessed we are for you both and the combination of akills perspective and drive you have.. For me …Forest schools in Australia is defjnitely worth persuing for multiple benefits..and i wish to continue learning more of this movement..
    Thank you
    Rachelle Worth
    RawEarth Education..


  2. Dianne Hills says:

    Thank you for this info, I live in Rockingham WA, the community has just saved our amazing Cape Peron from the developers, for now. I have been looking into the Coastal Classroom, to fit into our community driven Cape Peron Coastal Park proposal. From what I have found so far, early stages, local school programs are far from this approach. You have given me a great push to look further. Local connection to our coastal environment is definitely what I envision, local purpose built . We are close to Penguin Island with a colony of Little Penguins also close a colony on Garden Island.. Thankyou Di Hills


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