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The Forest School ‘facilitator’ identity: Dilemmas of helping or hindering learners’ agency?

Hayley Bullard, Lecturer  at University of Huddersfield Tracey Martin-Millward, Lecturer in Education and Post-doctoral Research Associate at Oxford Brookes University

The Forest School (FS) approach emphasises learner-centredness, play-based learning and long-term and repeated experiences, set within a woodland context. Adults facilitate, rather than direct, learner experiences (FSA, 2012). This democratic form of learning (Cree, 2009) may foreground a tension for practitioners between being the ‘more expert other’, scaffolding skills and understanding, and unconsciously steering learners towards adult-determined outcomes (Martin-Millward, 2020). This blog post will explore how the facilitator identity of the Forest School leaders (FSLs) can both help and hinder child agency within the approach in England.

The social-constructivist approach of FS (Knight, 2018) provides a foundation for leaders to reflect on their role as a facilitator of children’s learning. ‘Facilitation’ here means to enable guided participation and scaffold children’s learning experiences. The initial sessions of any FS programme can be highly adult-directed to aid children’s transition into the new environment and pedagogical style (Coats & Pimlott-Wilson, 2019). This introduces children to new ideas that they can appropriate and develop. The early strong steer from adults should wane, enabling the learner more control to direct their own learning experiences. This poses a dilemma for FSLs as it threatens their identity as the outdoor educational professional.

Outcome-driven agendas underpinning English education can increase external pressures for FSLs to demonstrate progression in learners’ knowledge and skills, in order to justify the time that can be misconceived as ‘just playing in the woods’. This pressure may be overt or unconscious, manifested through FSLs’ use of questioning to elicit concrete information, rather than exploring learners’ ideas and co-constructing knowledge in reciprocal dialogue with learners (Martin-Millward, 2020). Acknowledging the role of FSL as ‘more expert other’ may highlight pressure on adults to respond accurately to children’s queries, thus leading learners towards a passive recipient, rather than active enquirer, role (Martin-Millward, 2020). This can create a rigid enactment of FS where the adult determines what is right and wrong, standardising as a result what should be a unique, individualised FS experience.

‘The role of Forest School leader as “more expert other” can create a rigid enactment of Forest School where the adult determines what is right and wrong, standardising as a result what should be a unique, individualised FS experience.’

Outcome-focused practice influences the role of the facilitator through creating an instrumental perspective of FS’s learner-centred and play-based learning (Bullard, 2021). The concept of learner-centred practice begins to focus on what knowledge or skills are ‘developmentally’ appropriate for the child to gain from FS as opposed to the child’s intrinsic motivation and interest-centring practice. Play then becomes an instrumental, pedagogical tool for the facilitator to manipulate to generate desirable outcomes instead of the child’s tool to explore their learning environments (Bullard, 2021). The social-constructivist element of the approach, which acknowledges the concept of the learner as active, appears to become overwhelmed. Yet, the FS ideology of an autonomous learner may lead FSLs to question their positionality in children’s learning.

This blog post highlights the ongoing dilemma FSLs face between ‘facilitating’ experiences and promoting children’s agency. Although providing opportunities for children’s autonomy is a fundamental principle of FS, the role of FSL should not be reduced to purely passive, observational techniques. In contrast, overbearing intervention by adults (Maynard, 2007) may reduce children’s agency and homogenise their FS experience. FSLs might ideally be considered as being ‘on tap, not on top’ (Cree, 2009, p. 24); a skilful blend of knowing where and how to intervene to support learning without ‘hijacking’ learners’ dialogue or activities with preconceived notions of what should be learned. Allowing children to determine their own FS experience is important, and this takes constant reflection on the role of the facilitator; whether their actions were helping or hindering children’s agency.


Bullard, H. (2021, June 19). Exploring Forest School practitioners’ perspectives on the pedagogical principles of the Forest Schooling within an English early years context. Poster presented at the EdD Colloquium 2021: Developing Your Identity as A Researcher, Oxford Brookes University.

Coates, J. K., & Pimlott-Wilson, H. (2019). Learning while playing: Children’s Forest School experiences in the UK. British Educational Research Journal, 45(1), 21–40.

Cree, J. (2009). Forest school and the learning outside the classroom manifesto: What makes it different from all the other outside the classroom education? Horizons, 46, 22–25.

Forest School Association [FSA]. (2012). Full principles and criteria for good practice.

Knight, S. (2018). Translating Forest School: A response to Leather. Journal of Outdoor Environmental Education, 21, 19–23.

Martin-Millward, T. (2020). Choices, choices, choices: The nature of children’s agency within a Forest School context. [Unpublished PhD thesis, Oxford Brookes University].

Maynard, T. (2007). Encounters with Forest School and Foucault: A risky business? Education 3-13, 35(4), 379–391.

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