Promoting an emotional connection to nature and other animals via Forest School: Disrupting the spaces of neo-liberal performativity




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International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy



Peer reviewed



The concept of children’s alienation from, and reconnection to, nature has gained international interest.  The purpose of this paper is to explore how forest school as a growing phenomenon in the UK is promoting this reconnection to nature as well as benefiting children’s wellbeing.  At the same time forest school is providing children and young people with a more divergent learning experience, away from the structural pressures of the neo-liberal classroom. With its emphasis on play-based learning in wooded areas, and the freedom to make connections and spatially engage with what is around them at their own pace, such engagement in these ‘alternative’ learning spaces can support the development of a post-human discourse and sensibilities.  This is fundamental in developing children’s emotional connection in promoting pro-environmental behaviours and their attitudes towards valuing and protecting the non-human. 
This paper draws on field notes documented during Forest School leader training undertook by the author from April 2017 to May 2018.  Further data was collected in the form of participant observations of forest school sessions in three schools; semi-structured interviews with the head teachers of these schools and a focus group with three practitioners.  Supplementary data will also draw on the experiences of a group of 2nd year Education Studies university students after completing a module on Forest School and Outdoor learning, led by the author. 
This article finds that the more children engage with wooded areas and interact with the natural environment and other creatures within that space, the more it affords meaning to them.  This in turn promotes a sense of belonging and environmental stewardship, particularly in relation to non-human creatures.  This article also finds that where schools provide forest school opportunities on their sites, such provision is conducive to supporting more creative practices within the ‘spatialities’ of the neo-liberal classroom. 
Neo-liberal education policy with its focus on high stakes testing and performance outcomes increasingly shapes the spatial practices of school life.  Consequently, time spent outdoors and its relationship with intrinsic learning has declined in many schools. With many schools placing less importance on outdoor learning children and young people have become further alienated from engaging in different ways with their environments.  Further, data highlighting the link between FS and children’s interest in plants and other animals has not been the subject of much research.


The file attached to this record is the author's final peer reviewed version. The Publisher's final version can be found by following the DOI link.



Cudworth, D. (2020) Promoting an emotional connection to nature and other animals via Forest School: Disrupting the spaces of neo-liberal performativity. International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy,


Research Institute

Institute for Research in Criminology, Community, Education and Social Justice