1.2 – Evaluate 2 pieces of research on Forest School practise

Forest School in Norfolk – Pilot Study Report and Evaluation (source)

This piece of research was carried out in 2005 by Norfolk County Council (NCC) and evaluates a six week pilot programme of forest school sessions held in Norfolk. I chose this piece of research as the time scale for the programme was the same as that of the forest school taster sessions I delivered for the portfolio.

There were ten aims listed for the pilot study. These range from establishing the impact of forest school on meeting the Children’s Services objectives and the Every Child Matters agenda to the very vague ‘Identify factors which could affect children’s learning.’ The number of aims listed would have made difficult to select a focus when observing sessions and measuring impact. It would have been more useful to select just one or two aims. In addition, whilst the evaluation section contains lengthy discussion on the findings of the benefits of the forest school sessions there is no evaluation against the individual aims of the study.

The research refers regularly to Early Years best practise so I have assumed it was focussed on the early years age group. The research took place with a single group all from a small rural school. The research mentions the number of students on roll at the school being 85. The number of children in the forest school group were 22. All children coming from the same school though means they are likely to also live within a small geographical area and all come from similar socio-economic backgrounds.

Evaluation was carried out through informal and formal observations, informal conversations with parents and a home evaluation sheet.

For the research to be more representative children from a range of backgrounds and areas across the county should have been chosen. Not only would the children involved give a fairer representation of the impact but a variety of practitioners would also allow the researchers to observe different practise and evaluate the impact of this on the different client groups.

The sessions also alternated in location between the school grounds and local woodland. Over the six week period 3 sessions took place on the school site to a total of 4 hours and 5 sessions in the woodland at a total of 15 hours. When I delivered the six portfolio sessions I did begin to notice impact on the children but I would not be comfortable in stating in what is an academic research paper that this warranted anything other than further research.The evaluation is overwhelmingly positive and not particularly critical. Genuine findings and conclusions from the research could be undermined by accusations of bias. I would consider five sessions in woodland over a six week period was too few sessions and too short a time for sweeping claims such as “Forest School as an ethos and approach works for children” to be made however much I agree with them.

I found this document an interesting piece of reading but as a research project it appears to have been unfocussed in it’s execution and poorly presented.

The benefits of a forest school experience for children in their early years (source)

This piece of research was carried out in Worcestershire for the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), an independent provider of education research and insights.

The aims of this study were similar to those in the Norfolk study but limited to the following four:

  • to ascertain the views of the children, parents and practitioners regarding what they feel about the forest school experience and what they are gaining from their participation.
  • to ascertain if forest school provides skills and confidence for a child’s lifelong learning.
  • to provide an insight into the types of learning experiences being offered and whether these underpin the early years principles laid out in the foundation stage guidance.
  • generate ideas regarding dilemmas and tensions that may arise from the research that will inform the forest school coordinator and the LEA for its future development.

The sample size in this study was just 8. The group took part in weekly visits to woodland over a nine month period of time.

The study states the small sample size was chosen as it was accessible and those involved had no previous forest school experience and were representative of the immediate population affected by the study. The study claims the sample size was truly representative though I disagree. I think the small sample size was too small to be representative of any wider area or category of children. The nine month period of time though I believe was a good amount to enable judgement of the impact on this group of children.

Evaluation took place using a variety of methods including a questionnaire for parents/carers, video and photographic data, observations and informal conversations with the children during forest school sessions.

The evaluation discussed impact on personal and social development, communication and language development, lifelong learning and risk taking. There was discussion about how children had shown transference of skills developed in forest school to the school environment. There is an interesting commentary on how the children transitioned to the forest school environment and over the course of the year how they went from lacking confidence to move away from leaders to ‘feverish’ exploration and question asking later in the year.

Despite the considerably smaller sample size this research presented as far more professionally conducted and the findings as more accurate and reliable than the Norfolk study.

Conclusions

The two research studies were from different areas, conducted differently but shared similar aims. Both studies concluded that and were myriad positive benefits of forest school sessions. Both stated that the findings would be used to support the development of forest school programmes in the county they were conducted in.

Forest school offers two specific challenges with regards to research. The small number of children, typically 12 to fifteen maximum, in sessions means a number of different programmes would need to be studied in order for any research to include a significant sample size. Forest school is also most effective and has the most profound impact over a long period of time. Unless studies took place over a period of a year or more it would likely not be enough time to be able to accurately assess or judge the long term impact of the programmes being studies.

There are a growing number of research projects on forest schools being undertaken but they are carried out in isolation. A co-ordinated set of studies taking place across the country by different practitioners would present the only really viable way of gathering enough data to make judgements that cross geographical or social boundaries.