Skip to content

Research-based ideas
to help kids thrive.

077: 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:

Murray, R. (2003, November). A Forest School evaluation project: A study in Wales. NEF. Retrieved from:

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:

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.


Read Full Transcript



Jen:                                      [00:34]                   Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re going to take a look at a topic that is pretty close to my heart and we’re actually going to take a pretty critical look at it while we’re at it. Our topic today is forest schools. We’ve done a couple of episodes in the past on the importance of outdoor play and on Dr Scott Sampson’s book, How to Raise a Wild Child and I think the research on the value of outdoor play two very young children is pretty clear, so I guess we sort of assume, and I’m counting myself here up until this point, that if outdoor play is great for young children, then forest schools must be also great for slightly older children and while I certainly hope that the conclusion of this episode is not that far, schools are the worst thing ever for children. I’m going to be upfront and letting you know that the quality of the scientific research on the benefits of forest schools is really not amazing.

Jen:                                      [01:58]                   So here today to help us dig into the literature is Dr. Mark Leather, who is Senior Lecturer in Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning at Plymouth Marjon University in England. Dr Leather received his bachelor’s degree in science education from the University of Exeter, then a masters in outdoor education from the University of Edinburgh and his doctorate in education from the University of Exeter. I approached him specifically to discuss this topic with us because of a paper he published this year in the Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education called A Critique of Forest School, or Something Lost in Translation, because I think that when you really want to truly understand an idea, it can be helpful to talk with somebody who has critiqued that idea rather than someone who only sees the good in it. And I need to get to the bottom of this because my husband and I planned to send our daughter to a forest school. So Dr. Leather, welcome and are you up for the task?

Dr. Leather:                       [02:48]                   Thank you Jen. And yes, I certainly am up for the task.

Jen:                                      [02:52] Awesome. So let’s start at the beginning and talk about where forest schools came from and what impact that has on the way it’s practiced, because I think they’re most commonly associated with Scandinavian countries. Although I was interested find that there was actually a far school in Wisconsin in the nineteen twenties and so I’m curious about how the people in Scandinavia view nature and how often they’re in nature and how that differs from how people in the US and the UK view nature.

Dr. Leather:                       [03:18]                   Okay. Well that’s a great starting point. I think what we have to understand is that we’re talking about something in terms of 21st century forest school that is a branding and an approach to outdoor education or outdoor learning and that our cultures, whilst they are very similar, are specifically different and by that I do mean American culture is similar yet different to British culture and again British culture is white European – northern Europe – traditionally male dominated as is the Scandinavian cultures. Yet at the same time, in 2018, what we do and how we do it is similar yet different because of those social, historical and cultural pasts that we have and so in terms of how we perceive what a forest school experience is or may be, it’s going to be slightly different, which is why my paper critiqued forest school which did highlight the good aspects as well as the aspects that I think required questioning was titled Lost in Translation.

Dr. Leather:                       [04:35]                   So I titled it lost in translation because as I see it as I explored in the paper forest school and sometimes known as forest kindergarten came from the Danish [Danish word] and Scandinavian “Friluftsliv,” which is a philosophical and cultural approach to being outdoors and being in nature. And what we see in the UK has been the adoption of this philosophical approach to become a product. A commodity. Where in 21st century education knowledge is a product and is traded and sold. And so one of the arguments I make is that this cultural translation that something. The essence perhaps of what is special and positive about forest school, perhaps at some stages of its operationalization of when it’s taught and it’s led. Something is lost.

Dr. Leather:                       [05:37]                   Yeah, and I just want to sort of make that a little bit more concrete. I think there is sort of this tradition in Scandinavia of people being a part of nature and they, and I’m not even going to attempt to pronounce that word, that means free air life, -it has a whole lot of consonants in it and so whereas in the UK I don’t think there really is that tradition and certainly in the u. s is the tradition of seeing the wilderness as being something that’s scary and now it’s sort of something that’s out there and we’d go visit it, but we don’t stay there. And it seems to me that what you’re saying is that we’re importing this forest school and we’re, credentializing these teachers with a scheme where you go and pay a certain amount of money and you come out with a credential the other end and bandy it around and get a job. But we haven’t necessarily thought about how the ideas translate from one country to another.

Dr. Leather:                       [06:25]                   Yeah, like many aspects of education and specifically outdoor education, there is that sense for those of us involved that this is good, this feels good, so therefore it must be good. And culturally. I’ll give you an example of how I see things as problematic. If I paint the picture of British schooling, it is very much a setting of Victorian time of developing industrialization and developing the need for compulsory schooling for urban populations in these times. We’re talking about the 18 forties and fifties and there on. It’s very much a Victorian Britain and Victorian Britain is very much class loaded with the landed gentry and a factory owners and then the population who have moved from an agrarian economy working in the fields and now need to be educated. And in order to be educated, schools were set up in the university. I work at – we date back to 1840 where we took poor people off the streets, help them to become educated and help them to become the teachers of the next generations. If we cast our mind back and you may well remember from your time in the UK, Jen, we enjoy a lot of gray weather, rainy weather and a lot of cold weather and so still to this day we have our Victorian values in the primary school setting where wet, it’s raining, recess time known as playtime in the UK, would be known if it’s raining, you have wet to play time where the children do not go outside to play because they might get wet.

Jen:                                      [08:15]                   I remember that well.

Dr. Leather:                       [08:16]                   And so we still have that now. That makes a lot of sense. If we think about poor families, probably walking to school and home again at lunchtime and then back to school. If you only had one coat and you only had one pair of shoes and it’s raining, well if you’ve walked to school and you’re soaking wet, there may have been a fire probably at the front of the classroom, which you might’ve put your boots around your shoes around as a class and hang your coat up. So of course in Victorian times and looking after you would have said, well, don’t go out and get wet and cold, and there was that belief that if you got wet that you would catch a fever, that you would get some kind of bug. And that was really culturally held, was so still held in my childhood by my mother, bless her.

Dr. Leather:                       [09:04] Whereas if you then go and look at Scandinavian countries, I’ll give you an anecdote of a time in a teacher I know who spent in Finland. I finished school at recess time just before recess. The other caretaker, the janitor of the school, came out with a fire hose and this was in November and he sprayed the entire playing ground, the hard surface with the fire hose. And because it was in Finland and it was winter, the water froze so that the children could come out and play during their recess, run around skid, scate, put the skates on and generally enjoy the outside. Uh, similarly talking to my dear friends and colleagues in Iceland, if they actually did not go outside when it was dark or if they did not go outside when it was wet or windy or snowy, then they would probably go outside five days a year, some years.

Dr. Leather:                       [10:07]                   So culturally there’s this “well, of course we’re going to go outside and recreate and have picnics and go for walks” and there’s a great phrase from the forest school movement that one of the sayings is there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.” Now, as an academic, I heard this and I tried to work out where it came from. I first heard it with the standup comedian Billy Connolly, who’s was a very sweary Scotsman that is very observational. A Glaswegian by birth, he tells a wonderfully funny story about his grandmother who would say that to him. Now actually there’s no such thing as bad weather. Just the wrong clothes is a play on words in Norwegian, and I won’t begin to pronounce, but there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.”” It’s a rhyme. It reflects their cultural mindset that hates, of course we’re gonna go out, we’re just put a coat on and I find today that we still have that kind of attitude to outside and inside.

Dr. Leather:                       [11:16] There’s another thing to talk about “Friluftsliv,” It’s actually enshrined within the Norwegian constitution that it is your right to travel over another person’s land and you can actually stay on another person’s land out of sight of their property for two weeks and you may take berries from their land and fish from their rivers now I think in UK we’re actually quite fortunate in the rights of the way the top public, so we have public rights of way that I can walk on a. We have public brideways so that I can ride my horse or my mountain bike on and we have wild areas where there is certainly in England, the Countryside Rights of Way Act. It’s called the Right to Roam.

Dr. Leather:                       [12:15]                   The laws in Scotland are different. We have different governments, different parliaments and so we actually have a right over somebody else’s land, but that’s to travel, that’s not to stay. And then of course you get to the United States where when I’ve been there and enjoyed my visits, I see the signs posted trespassers, maybe shot for hunting or that kind of thing – saying this is my land. You have no right to it. It’s mine. And I think we need to understand culturally who owns the land, who controls the land, who, how the laws of the nation or the state are such that that directs how we inhabit the land and the landscape.

Jen:                                      [12:56]                   So I’m curious about how you’d see the defining characteristics of a forest school because it seems as though those are probably related to how we view land as well and I think that what if our school is, is a bit different in the US and the UK and in Sweden as well. So I don’t know if it’s possible to gravitate towards some overarching characteristics, but I wonder if you could try and give us a picture of what is a forest school.

Dr. Leather:                       [13:19]                   Yeah, I certainly can do that. We could use Sara Knight’s definition, one of the leading English authors that’s created an academic prominence in the last 20 years with a number of textbooks. Although when you start to interrogate it, it doesn’t necessarily make sense. I’m going to start by saying that I argue that forest school is a social construction as all of current outdoor education or adventure education, wilderness trips, sail training, social constructs that are using traditional outside pursuits, whether it be horse-riding, ski touring, sailing and using them for educational purposes. And so when we contrive them in that way, they are socially constructed as is a forest school, particularly in the UK. The question I would raise is do we actually have forests? Do we have actually have wilderness? Our forests or wildernesses – are they a physical manifestation or is it something that starts in the mind?

Dr. Leather:                       [14:34]                   So maybe that was a bigger questions of school defined, but that’s kind of where my thinking has gone. So a forest school as a culturally constructed in the UK would be described as where the setting is not the usual one. So somewhere outdoors. It is a safe enough environment that children can learn to keep themselves safe by taking manageable risks. Importantly for the UK compared to traditional forms of outdoor education, it happens over time, at least half a day, if not a day, every single week for 10 to 12 weeks. So that would be what we would call a term or a semester. Participants go out in all weather, so whether it’s raining, snowy, wet, when the a warm or cold participants always go out. Trust is central. Learning is as far as possible initiated by the participants. One of the wonderful things that forest school practice brings to outdoor learning and adventure education in the UK is this idea that it is child-initiated and child-led rather than the teacher, the leader, the coach, the instructor deciding what the sequence of activities is going to be.

Dr. Leather:                       [15:59]                   The blocks of sessions had beginnings and endings and the sessions are led by a trained for a school leader who understands the ethos. So that’s what a forest school setting may look like. And we have one on our campus here down in Plymouth. We have a small woodland, we have some trees and we have an area that we can put up an old parachute to give us some shelter from the rain and we have an area where we will build fires, small fires, and we can sit around on tree stumps and some woodland to go off and explore and play and do various activities. One of the big focuses for forest school is the sitting around the fire safely.

Dr. Leather:                       [16:45]                   In England, yes. In America they would never understand and that’s what I

Dr. Leather:                       [16:52]                   quite surprising and also quite sad really. There’s a number of things to think about in sitting around a campfire with children. I’m going to suggest to you that if we take a look at evolutionary psychology, the evolutionary psychologists would say, why is it the most people like sitting by a campfire? Do you like sitting by a campfire, Jen?

Jen:                                      [17:17]                   I do.

New Speaker:                   [17:17]                   And I can appreciate that in some parts of California, you would not want to be lighting fires at some times of the year. For the obvious risks of fire. Do you like being on the beach and staring out to sea?

Jen:                                      [17:32]                   Yes.

New Speaker:                   [17:32]                   Yeah, and how about if you climb a hill or a mountain and you’re at the top and you get a fantastic view out in front of you?

Jen:                                      [17:42]                   Do I just put my head down and walk on or do I stand there and savor it? I would say I stand there and savor it.

Dr. Leather:                       [17:51]                   Those three things I think are quite fundamental and evolutionary psychology arguments would tell us that that’s because those of our ancestors going back thousands of years, those are the ones who survived. That’s in our DNA somehow, or it’s in our way of understanding the world in that if you’re going to be invaded by, see if you stand at the beach and you can see a long way. You can see if the ships are coming and if they’re friendly or not. If you have the high ground, you can see who’s coming over to meet your tribe and you can then decide whether they are friend or foe and what your course of action is. And similarly sitting by the campfire that allowed humankind to live in colder climates. It allowed us to cook food and it allowed us to ward off Saber Tooth Tigers. So I think the sitting round a fire is something that is fundamental to human existence, to educating people out of doors and it’s quite a focus in forest school.

Dr. Leather:                       [18:54]                   So I think we need to reframe the language that we’re not playing with fire because that would be risky and foolish. And and having worked on an American summer camp not a number of years ago with teenage boys from the inner city who would waive sticks around the fire, I fully understand just quite how dangerous and risky that can be. But one of the great things, one of the great aspects of a forest school introduction to a fire is you teach the rules of how to be by a fire, by playing some games and there are some clear rules about not stepping across it. You don’t put anything in it. And we are then able to sit by the fire and tell stories with it, use it to cook on. And the very act of making a fire is something quite wonderful. So educationally that there’s a lot to be argued for playing by it. Yeah, that’s. Let’s not play with fire.

Jen:                                      [19:56]                   So I’m curious about whether this being outside aspect is a critical component of children’s education and I’m specifically sort of thinking beyond the preschool years here and is there something unique about being outside and being able to have a fire and being outside in all weather that gives children some kind of benefit that they wouldn’t get from a high quality indoor based program where the learning is child-led and they do get to decide what they do. Is there anything unique about the outdoor aspect of this and if so, what is it?

Dr. Leather:                       [20:29]                   I think that’s a very good question, Jen, because it’s something that has occurred to me over the years. If we take a traditional approach to the outdoors, which forest school would be a traditional approach, it’s just a modern way of badging it or describing it. So what is at the heart of the forest school approach is the same as what is at the heart of the Outward Bound approach, which is actually the same as the Scout Movement.

Jen:                                      [21:01]                   So we’re basically talking about outdoor based education for older children?

New Speaker:                   [21:05]                   No, what I’m saying is the ethos of it is that it’s about personal and social development.

Jen:                                      [21:11]                   Okay, got it. Yeah.

New Speaker:                   [21:11]                   So if you cut an outward bound course through the middle, they’re not trying to make you the best kayaker or climber. It’s about the development of self within a group, within a community.

Dr. Leather:                       [21:22]                   And when you read the literature on forest school, that’s what they’re doing. It’s about developing the sense of self and giving children the chance to be outside. So to answer the critics of outdoor education, but why don’t you need to go outdoors is wet. It’s cold, it’s dangerous, it’s risky. There’s fire, there’s bears. There’s all of this answer to that is if the claims of outdoor education are only that, it’s about personal and social development, then you could do that if you played on sports team, performed in a music choir and orchestra, and you did a touring show as part of a drama group. You can achieve that sense of community, that sense of development because the activities you’re doing are the tool by which you go on this personal journey, but what I think the outdoors offers is a couple of things. Number one, the research evidence is there, that our time spent in green spaces and blue spaces in nature is good for us physiologically and good for us psychologically, and the recent developments in neuroscience and brain scanning technologies are able to show that happening as people watch or see the ocean.

Dr. Leather:                       [22:45]                   The other thing that’s really important is in a time of environmental crisis, if we can take people outside that we may be able to connect them to nature or natural environments or more natural environments. Let’s not get into the debate about what do we mean by nature and outdoor environments and if we can connect them to those places, we might get them to start to care about those places so that they may then act in a more environmentally sustainable way and there’s a body of evidence from environmental education research. A lady called Louise Chwla, who showed that the early experiences in environmental settings are more likely to lead to pro-environment behaviors when we’re older and he’s absolutely wonderful about the forest school movement is that it has taken what was traditionally like that Outward Bound; like the Scouts, like the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme which was for older children and has said it’s not just for slightly younger children at the end of their grade six, but it’s for kindergarten children as well.

Dr. Leather:                       [23:58]                   And so if you take kids out from the age of three, you can introduce them to using a knife. You can introduce them to sitting by a fire. You can set them free to run around in woodland and play and use their imagination. And I think one of the phrases I like to use, is from my dear friends in Iceland, they have a variety of words which I will not even begin to pronounce, but they talk about being under open skies. Now, I liked that. You’re not constrained, you’re not in the box. Yeah, you’ll outside the box and there was some wonderful analogies there with the language we use for creativity and lateral thinking and think outside the box. So under open skies there is research evidence that says the earlier we do that the more likely we are to care about the planet.

Dr. Leather:                       [24:53]                   And of course with most of our populations now being in urban or sub-urban environments and places, the more we are likely to engage people in the green spaces, the more likely we are to have some kind of concept about planet, environment and the world we live in. And I guess Jen at heart, I’m just a hopeless romantic, wants to build a nice communities and a better planet and make people feel good about themselves. If forest school is one approach to do that, that becomes recognized in early years as they, oh yeah, my kids are doing in the forest school then that’s absolutely wonderful. My critique was that there’s multiple lost opportunities from because it’s lost in translation that we may not in Britain be quiet comfortable letting children play, initiate the play. There’s a mistrust of the play. It may not happen. One of the things that’s wonderful about it is yes, you can do it with older children.

Dr. Leather:                       [26:03]                   It has been used – Sara Knight I wrote about forest school for all and had chapters in her book about different concepts, different settings in which you can use for school. What I really enjoyed about engaging with it, and I put my hand up. I am not a forest school leader. I have not done the forest school training, but I have read and studied around the subject. What I think is wonderful is the idea of child-initiated; child-led. I’d like to rephrase that as student-initiated and student-led, and I’ve tried to integrate here at university with undergraduate students in our program, have a outdoor opportunities for play and playfulness, because there is a body of evidence that says if we can stimulate these ideas of play and playfulness that leads in adults to creativity and innovation and if there’s anything we need as a society in the future, we need some creative problem solving so that that whole concept of being outside, feeling good about ourselves, physical and mental well-being and our whole, let’s use it for our brains. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. If I flip the question back on you, Jen, whoever said that indoor education was a good thing. Show me the evidence.

Jen:                                      [27:29]                   Yeah. I’m a massive proponent of self directed learning and I agree that it. The classroom is almost never the best place for that. It can be a good place for it, but it’s almost never the best place for it. Digging further into that topic on sort of play based learning, self directed learning. I am curious to try and help parents who are less familiar with this to understand how can we know if our children are learning something and I think that maybe in England it’s a bit easier because they’re going to regular school four days a week and the forest school is one day a week or half a day a week and you can kind of see they’re making progression in a regular school in a sense and perhaps the forest school experience is enhancing regular school in the us, that doesn’t really happen.

Jen:                                      [28:11]                   You’re either in regular school or you’re in forest school and forest school is usually kind of [9:00] AM to [1:00] PM four or five days a week and your child is not going to regular school if they’re in forest school. And so how can a parent who is considering forest school, or whose child is in forest school understand, you know, my kids going there five days a week. They’re not taking formal lessons and they’re not being formally instructed in reading or math or anything along those lines. Are they learning anything, or are they just messing about. And it is. If they are just messing about, is that okay? Is the whole point that they are messing about and learning how to lead and when to follow and connections to place that they develop and that whole sort of bigger thing is way more important than, can you write an essay on it whatever.

Dr. Leather:                       [29:01]                   That’s a very interesting question. I think like many of these interesting and difficult and challenging questions and certainly an education, it comes to the underpinning question of what is the purpose of education? For whom are we educating this child and for what outcomes. Now the state in England, pace or education and created through the church, many, many, many schools for primary education, K through six, and the government now dictates what is taught in the curriculum and that now starts from the age of three and it’s been culturally handed down. Politicians have got involved with “I think the best thing is this or I think the best thing is that.” And so we have in a neoliberal world of markets, free markets and competition. My strategy for teaching English is better than your strategy. My children in my country score better on math tests than your children in your country.

Dr. Leather:                       [30:15] There’s no discussion about what’s best for the child or the well-being of young people. So we have a system where we are judged on our ability to pass exams at certain times to pass another set of exams perhaps to go to university or Grad school and that’s what we’re measuring. What we tend not to measure or we tend to value, but we don’t tend to measure is what kind of citizen, what kind of person, what kind of community member is that young person. Now, I’m a big believer in that A: one size doesn’t fit all and there is no right answer because let’s face it, educationally, Jen, if there were easy answers, I’d like to think that we’ve figured this out a few years and we can see the swing of the pendulum about what’s best and what’s not. I certainly think that when you’re outside, if it is well-facilitated, well-taught, well-led, that they provide such rich, authentic lived experiences that good teaching around that will teach you everything you ever need to know about numeracy and literacy and science and probably a geographies and the histories of the place you’re in as well as allowing you to devote your artistic talents, but that requires really good teaching and play based pedagogies that I articulate in my article based upon some work by a professor of education here, Elizabeth Wood.

Dr. Leather:                       [31:54]                   She talks about it as being part of a very thorough planning process. There’s unstructured play. They’re structured play. There’s free play. There’s no free play. This is not saying that the best way to educate people is you need to be outside every single day or you need to be playing constantly. It’s not saying that, but it’s saying that if you integrate that and work that into a rich mesh of your educational provision, your blanket, it’s woven in. Then it will bring an added dimension. And I work locally on Dartmoor or with someone who uses the environment, playing games to get 15 year old boys to write poetry and the way it’s structured and the games you play, you sense something, you smell something, you taste something, you see something, you scaffold that correctly and that you stopped to see boys who say, “I don’t do writing, I’m not interested.” You start to see them write poetry and perform it and speak it outside. It’s really powerful stuff.

Jen:                                      [33:03]                   I can imagine now we’re getting all tingly thinking about it.

Dr. Leather:                       [33:06] Outdoor experiences provide an authenticity. And in a previous life I worked in high school and I taught science and physics and the one question in science teaching in England was, “Are we doing a practical today, Sir? So maybe could we do something with our hands? Can we make something, build something and learn some stuff along the way?” And my answer was whenever was “Yes, absolutely.” And that often meant going outside to do a something around the laws of physics. That was one bite of me. Educating people outdoors and experientially, which I carry on today, so forest school and outdoor learning more generally will give you a variety of authentic experiences

Jen:                                      [33:56]                   And so, digging deeper into that topic. Have you used the words well-facilitated and well-taught and we’re talking about deep authentic experiences and so that brings me to the thought of teacher certifications and so the the forest school certification program in the UK, there is one there. There isn’t one here that I could find. You go and have five days of training. You work on a portfolio on your own for about six months and then you do four days of assessment and then you have a “level three certification” so you can design and run a forest school. And I was reading a paper that talked about the intersection of forest schools and knowledge held by First Nations people in Canada and it talks about how most forest school practitioners; they’re typically not from any kind of culture where they have deep knowledge in this stuff.

Jen:                                      [34:42]                   They learned it sort of, you know, maybe by themselves or during their training, they’re happy to have just a bit more competence than the children they teach. Whereas First Nations people, you know, they’ve passed this knowledge down for generations, their true masters at whatever craft they’ve selected to teach. And so I’m curious, do you think these certifications mean anything? Do they promote quality at all or are they irrelevant and we’d be better off finding someone who has true deep knowledge who gives a hoot about whether they have a credential and get them to teach our class instead?

Dr. Leather:                       [35:16]                   Yeah, that’s a much larger educational question. All certifications I would say yes they are because when I send my children off, let’s suppose that I send them off for swimming lessons. I’d like to know that the person meets a certain standard; is able to work safely and appropriately. Of course, I want them to have the very best. And if I could find an Olympic swimmer who’s also a good teacher, then I may wish to introduce them to them. So our teaching certifications worthwhile. There’s two things to answer your here, Jen. Yes, they are the danger of losing something in translation and a philosophy for school becoming a commodity, a product, a training package that sold and marketed by companies, means that there’s multiple missed opportunities. So I’d like to think that if I send my children to the woods, to the forest on a forest school, that they would be taught by somebody who has a great deal of knowledge, not just a thousand pound (GBP) training course, how we resolve that in the UK and how, how that might manifest itself in the US; these are different stories.

Dr. Leather:                       [36:29]                   The interesting thing you mentioned, the paper; a piece about bringing indigenous First nation Elders into any forest school training program. And I was fortunate enough to meet her when I first was talking about this paper and at an international outdoor education conference a number of years ago and she lovingly writes that I disturbed her. So I think that was a good educational disturbance that she went back and said, “we must do something about this” because now the core privatization and commodification of forest school in the UK is such that there are one or two companies who are very successful companies in that their products are widely bought by people wanting training and they have been taken invited to essentially X empire; X Commonwealth – Canada, New Zealand, Australia – and I have also seen on the facebook group in there’s a, there’s a forest school USA Facebook group that this company offers online training that is hugely problematic and hugely arrogant in my view. In the we are going into countries and saying, we are saying we’re British. This is forest school. This is how you should be in the forest with.

Jen:                                      [38:00]                   It fits pretty well with how we export colonialism, and one or two other ideas?

Dr. Leather:                       [38:05]                   It is absolutely rampant kind of colonialism. And as an Australian aboriginal outdoor educator explained to me and we were having a wonderful discussion. He said, European white men have been on my land for about 300 years. My people have been here for 70,000. I think we know a thing or two about the land and the stories and our practices and of course what has happened was rampant colonialism a diminished that overwrote it. The histories weren’t written down and so those practices were not passed on. I think the way forward is the way forward that Canada has looked at this and said, this is traditional white European educational practice and this is what we would like to do, but let’s acknowledge the land that we’re on. Let’s acknowledge the wisdom and the knowledge of the elders and invite them in. Now I think there are still elders around in the United States.

Dr. Leather:                       [39:11]                   The interesting reason that that would happen perhaps is that within England and within the UK, we don’t really have indigenous people that have been colonized except me. I’m an indigenous person. It was 1066 and the Normans who came over and we became Norman, but before that the Romans were here and at one stage the Celts and the Anglos and Saxons. So those companies in England and the UK wouldn’t necessarily begin to imagine that this would be offensive and educators in Canada, Australia and New Zealand to the USA may look at the forest school movement and go, “Hey, wow, that looks really exciting and really great because it is, let’s bring these guys over and tell us how to do it.” So I think as an educator, my job is to get you Jen; my students, anyone who crosses my path, I think let’s think about what we do and why we do it and how we do it and let’s underpin our practice with some theory which is really poorly articulated currently in the books.

Dr. Leather:                       [40:20]                   And then let evidence with quality research what outcomes, what do our children learn? What is it we want them to learn? What is it they have learned? Have they made progress, have they become nicer people, better people, more caring? Are they more self-reliant and is their ability to work with numbers of any use to them. Currently the research is mainly anecdotal and small scale and I’m really hoping that my association with the Forest School Association in the UK will lead to us doing a much larger study as to what are the outcomes from the children’s perspective. What is it that they gain from these experiences?

Jen:                                      [41:11]                   Yeah, so let’s talk about some of those outcomes and I prefer to use “anecdata” rather than “anecdotal…” So I read a whole bunch of book chapters and journal Articles and reports published about for a school and a lot of them discuss what are the outcomes and I’m just going to read a few them. “I felt that the project was a great success. The greatest measure of success of the gifted and talented far school program in Plymouth is that the school decided to repeat the program and extend it to older gifted and talented children too,” and I’ll set aside the fact that this was only for the gifted and talented children as a topic for another episode. Another quote: “Evidence is showing the boys participating in the forest school have an increased attendance by as much as 20 percent” although there’s no indication of initial levels of attendance or whether 20 percent brings you up to an acceptable level or not.

Jen:                                      [42:04] Another one, “Participants in the Duffrin project said that they would know they have succeeded if the children are enthusiastic and the teachers have had fun.” How can we call this evaluation I was unable to find, and I believe we talked about this by email and you said there basically isn’t any rigorous evaluation in terms of the quality of children’s learning and forest school and how it prepares them for their life. And, and I guess partly that’s due to what we’ve been talking about, which is that we’re not having this background beginning conversation about what outcomes we want to have. So it’s really hard to then go and measure. So how can we know if these programs are worth doing or not?

Dr. Leather:                       [42:42]                   That’s the $64,000,000 question. Intuitively, forest school practitioners, parents, children – feel, sense – that they are worth doing. As have other programs take children and young people outside and outside of traditional settings and outside of traditional boxes and outside of traditional power dynamics and relationships of teacher-child; teacher-pupil. There are small pockets of study. There are a number of Ph.D Theses that I have come across that have started to explore the many aspects of what is a forest school practice and given that it’s been probably 15 years now that since it started to pick up and gather interest, it has been focused in the early years. It has been focused by practitioners and the rigorous education with evaluation hasn’t happened. The wide reaching evaluations haven’t happened. They cost money to implement, you have to pay me or someone like me to oversee a project where we come up with a strategy and that forest school experience parallels many other of the outdoor education and learning programs that have gone on in the UK over the last 70 years.

Dr. Leather:                       [44:08] Recently a project that was funded by the Paul Hamlin Foundation looked at school groups who did learning away. Many countries would call it going off to camp in England, Britain, the UK would describe it as having a school residential and these were music arts, sports and outdoor residential, and they looked at exploring this analog data, many, many, many, many examples of what were the themes and the outcomes from the pupil perspective, from the teacher perspective in the school perspective. And this was a, I believe it was a five year study that would be quite straightforward in part to do for forest school in the UK and it just requires somebody to invest in the resource to do that .

Jen:                                      [45:01]                   It almost seems as though you might be closer in the UK because there’s somebody starting to make money off it. That’s usually what it takes, right? There has to be somebody who’s making money off something related to our school in order for there to be research done.

Dr. Leather:                       [45:13]                   Uh, yeah, very possibly. Or it requires somebody to see an opportunity for the various calls for funding for social impact and change. And I think what you’re likely to see is quite a narrow focus. So within the UK at the moment, there are calls for papers to look at mental wellbeing and suicide rates in teenage boys because they are horribly high and it might well be that somebody could connect a program of multiple sites, multiple locations around the UK and using a forest school approach, look at the efficacy of what happens to them, and do some measurement and evaluation or that. The reason I wrote my critique was I just wanted to question, I believe it to be positive to be involved in outdoor learning. I’ve, I’ve done it for most of my adult life. I’ve been really fortunate, you know, I’m in a very privileged position to take groups of young adults into the mountains onto the sea onto rivers and look at a whole variety of why we might want to be there and what we can learn about ourselves, others, the planet, and so on.

Dr. Leather:                       [46:23]                   So of course I believe in the value of it and it’s hard to argue for when we are talking about things that are measured that are important to society that becomes a mathematics qualification and English language qualification. Which can be taught in isolation in a classroom with 30 people. As soon as I want to take a group out, it costs twice as much money and we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing is the saying. These outdoor experiences are rich. They are full of deep learning about multiple things. Yet what we have done is done the Henry Ford approach to educating people on a production line and one teacher puts in the widgets of English. The next one put the bolts of mathematics and at the end of it we wonder why we don’t have a car that sits very well together. Because we’re humans.

Dr. Leather:                       [47:24]                   We’re not inputs and outputs, but that’s how we’re treated and for the most part, well, I had to suffer it, so why shouldn’t my children have to suffer it and I had to do homework. That what’s our why shouldn’t they have to suffer it? Where we’re caught in this cultural cycle, repetitive cultural cycle that we see across the United States, Australia, the UK, where neoliberal values of the market and performance and measurement and accountability and a lack of trust of what educators can do with people and it’s often said that the system of education in Finland is one of the finest and people are the happiest and they don’t teach their children to read formally until seven years old. So they’re not an illiterate nation. So does it matter if you are playing games and talking and using language up until the age of seven. I also had a conversation with a native indigenous educator in Canada who said that in their tribe you take a boy out and teach him mathematics when he’s ready for it, and when it’s ready for it, that might be when he’s 13 or it might be when he’s 16 and you could teach everything that he needs to know in the space of several months, but that’s not the model we use.

Dr. Leather:                       [48:41]                   That’s not how it works. And like I say, I’m aware that I wanted to save the world, change the planet and everything will be perfect when I’m in charge. When it comes down to forest school, would I send my children? Yes, I would. It would have to be a good one that I will know about and I don’t want to be involved in it and check out the people leading it, but then that’s kind of what I do when I say my children off to school and now it’s what I do. If they want to go off and play on a sports team, what club are they going to go to?

Dr. Leather:                       [49:15]                   What are the coaches like? You know, so my children are fortunate. I gave them knives at an early age, sharp knives and taught them how to use them. When we go off camping, we build fires. They will cook with me in the kitchen at home and I’m a great believer in the more responsibility you give children and young people, the more they can accept and it requires dialog. It requires dialogue to help young children and young people grow. So for a school is a good thing. It could be better, let’s not lose sight of what it is and let’s fight against the commodification, the corporatization of education in many forms.

Jen:                                      [49:58] Alright, and on that note, we’ll bring some power to our interactions with forest school and try and make them into culturally appropriate tools that really achieve what we want them to achieve rather than what some bureaucracy off who doesn’t know us or our children says that says that is important.

Dr. Leather:                       [50:15]                   Yeah, absolutely.

Jen:                                      [50:17]                   Yeah. Awesome. Well thank you so much for sharing this and I, I think I’m going to say that even though the research space is dodgy on this, we’re going to go ahead continuing to consider forest school strongly in an educational options for our daughter.

Dr. Leather:                       [50:32]                   That sounds great. Jen. I don’t think research is dodgy.

Jen:                                      [50:39]                   The evidence for efficacy.

New Speaker:                   [50:41]                   I just don’t think it’s there yet. Yeah. Because we’ve not invested in it yet and you know, maybe there will come a time when the people who do it will be in a position to effectively evaluate their own practice, in a thorough and robust, uh, research and educational research manner. So I look forward to that and that’s part of what my role is here at the university. So I’m in a great place to help try and change things.

Jen:                                      [51:10] Indeed. Well thank you so much for working on that and for your time and helping us walk through these issues today and understand more about them.

Dr. Leather:                       [51:17]                   You’re more than welcome. It’s been a real pleasure and I don’t know where the time’s gone.

Jen:                                      [51:22]                   It has gone indeed. So listeners can find references for today’s episode at

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (, which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at

She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at

And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at

Leave a Comment