One of the key principles of Forest School is to promote environmental awareness and encourage sustainability, a growing theme in Education delivery related to sustainability and well-being. All learners are encouraged to be aware of conservation issues of the woodland around them as ecological education is at the heart of the Forest School approach.
75% of children in the UK spend less time outdoors than prison inmates with only 10% having access to outdoor learning throughout their primary school education (DEFRA, 2016; Carrington, 2016). This fact was a driver behind our initiative to provide trainee teachers and educators with specialist skills to work with children and young people outdoors. Additionally, in relation to early Years and Initial Teacher Training, Ofsted is beginning to refocus its inspections around the review of a broad and balanced curriculum. To achieve this, it recommends the use of the rich resource of the outdoor environment to improve provision and engagement with pupils and learning.
Given the prominence of environmental debate, concerns of sustainability, children’s health and wellbeing for example, the School of Education at LJMU have made it a priority to ensure that students develop a sound understanding of outdoor learning and Forest School through the use of a dedicated on-campus outdoor learning space. The establishment of a designated Forest School area on the campus is novel in-sector and something that attracts potential students to all of our programmes.
The Forest School area at LJMU was born out of the recognition by teacher training staff that whilst outdoor learning was hugely beneficial to pupils, the full Forest School experience was inaccessible to many, particularly those studying at inner city schools with little or no green space. A former dry ski slope at the IM Marsh campus provided a piece of land suitable for rewilding, which was then designated for outdoor learning. Trainee teachers coming through LJMU have outdoor learning embedded in every subject - including maths and science - and are also taught how to create opportunities for and to prioritise outdoor learning even where there is poor access to green space.
In 2021 the IM Marsh campus is closing, and the university is moving teacher training to an inner city campus. A new forest school area is being planted in the vicinity, in association with Mersey Forest. This will enable the university to continue its training programmes, but will also provide access to green and natural spaces for pupils at inner city schools.
One of the biggest challenges to overcome was around the mindset of the trainee teachers. Often they hold the belief that teaching outdoors will be challenging, as it will be more difficult to keep children calm and well-behaved. Our research suggests the opposite is true - although children may be more active, and perhaps noisier, they are more likely to engage with learning if they are participating, experimenting and collaborating with others. Outdoor learning provides an excellent setting for a range of learning styles - visual, kinetic, aural and also empowers the learners themselves, allowing them to be involved, regardless of ability.
Another challenge is around the time and pressure that teachers are under. Many feel that outdoor learning is something they simply don't have time for. We have demonstrated through our teacher training programme that outdoor learning does not have to be an extra-curricular activity, or an add-on to PSHE education, but that children can benefit from learning outdoors in every subject.