Exploring practitioners' perspectives on the Forest Schooling within an English Early Years context




In this special BECERA feature, Hayley Bullard tells us what has inspired her to research Forest Schooling within an English Early Years context, what it’s been like to conduct her study during the pandemic and explains how she believes her work could inform further research and practice in this area.


During my training to become an Early Years practitioner, I was lucky enough to gain work experience in Sweden at a Forest School. Returning to England, my perspective on young children had changed. My head was full of ideas about how to encourage children’s independence and a new understanding of how, when given the opportunity and trust, children are more than capable of steering their own learning. From that point, I became interested in the English Forest School approach. The development of the Forest School approach was initially influenced by Scandinavian models of Forest kindergartens (Knight, 2018) and separates itself from other forms of outdoor learning with its defining pedagogical principles of child-initiated and play-based learning.
I was excited when asked to carryout Forest School inspired sessions in an Early Years setting I worked for; yet, felt frustrated by my experience. I did not feel I could give children the amount of freedom in play within nature which is crucial for the experiential learning in the Forest School approach. Instead, I felt pressures to validate my practice and children’s learning to the setting through adult-led activities used to target specific Early Learning Goals in the EYFS framework.
To my relief, it did not seem like it was just me that was experiencing tensions in practice. After a long line of research reaffirming the benefits of Forest Schooling on children’s learning, research in the field is beginning to explore critical perspectives on Forest Schooling. I was inspired by Leather’s (2018) article A critique of Forest School or something lost in translation which raises concerns over the rapid development of Forest Schooling that may be contributing to tokenistic practice. McCree (2019) also highlights variation in Forest School practice which includes tokenistic approaches where Forest School principles are diluted to accommodate mainstream educational agendas. Although it may be disheartening to hear of dilution of the Forest School principles, I do feel this is a critical stage in the progression of the approach.
In the BECERA Conference 2021, I will be sharing my doctoral research exploring the development of the Forest School approach and practitioners’ perspectives of implantation of the Forest School pedagogical principles. Forest School’s pedagogical principles of child-initiated and play-based learning are said to be influenced by Scandinavian models (Knight, 2018; Leather, 2018). To understand the English perspective of these principles, my research focused on chronological analysis of child-led and play-based learning in English Early Years history. Through this exploration, the study found fluctuation between two perspectives of child-led and play-based learning, instrumental and revisionists perspectives. In my conference presentation, I will discuss the study’s historical exploration, particularly drawing on the development of the Victorian Froebelian Kindergarten movement. Although Forest Schooling and Froebelian Kindergartens differ in their approach, there are similarities in the process of development of the two approaches. Therefore, looking back at historical movements, which have navigated through instrumental and revisionist perspectives of child-led and play-based learning, could provide indications as to how these perspectives are influencing Forest School principals and current practice.
During the conference I will discuss the research methods and challenges faced while conducting research during the pandemic. My research follows an interpretivist approach with a small-scale case study and is ongoing. Findings will identify how Forest School practitioners perceive Forest School’s pedagogical principles and how this may impact on the progression of the approach in early years contexts.
I am looking forward to presenting my ideas and research alongside fellow participants in the BECERA Conference 2021.



Hayley Bullard (@HayleyBullard1) is a postgraduate researcher studying for her PhD in Education at the University of Huddersfield. She has an Early Years professional background and is passionate about outdoor learning. At BECERA 2021, she will be presenting her research on Forest Schooling and Early Years pedagogy in Symposium 3 on Wednesday 17th February.


Knight, S. (2018). Translating Forest School: A response to Leather. Journal of Outdoor Environmental Education, 21:19-23. Retrieved from
Leather, M. (2018). A critique of “Forest School” or something lost in translation. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21:5-18. Retrieved from
McCree, M. (2019). When Forest School isn’t Forest School. In Sackville-Ford, M. and Davenport, H. (Eds.), Critical Issues in Forest Schools. (pp.3-20). London: SAGE Publications


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