Learning Theories and Forest School


The Schema theory of development describes how different children can have different observable patterns in their play and in their learning. It is a theory of cognitive development that is influenced the constructivist idea of experiential learning. Chris Athey developed the contemporary theory in the 1980s and reflected Jean Piaget’s ideas, specifically the notion that schemas can be described as being ‘patterns of repeatable actions that lead to early categories and then to logical classifications’.[1][2] Other significant contemporary schema theorists are Professor Cathy Nutbrown and Dr Frances Atherton.

Schema theory is used today by those who consider childhood development should be supported by placing the child in the centre of the process. Schemas are described today as a child being fascinated with something, or with doing something in a particular way. They are usually impulsive, necessary and ‘need’ to be done. They may, however, be thought of as strange or irritating to adults.[3]

Some common schemas and how they could be presented in Forest School are identified below:

Trajectory – Using natural materials to create rope swings, bridges, ladders, bows or archery, sling shots; making objects move through the air from a height
Positioning – lining up natural objects as a collection to classify by visual characteristics
Enveloping – covering themselves or objects completely: making dens and shelters and camouflaging them
Transporting – collecting wood for fires or plants to eat; moving and setting-up a session’s resources
Transforming – turning soil into mud, turning ice into water, turning wood into ash
Orienteering – observing how natural objects move and copying or transposing their movement[2]

Schema theory can be effectively applied to the Forest Schools Framework. A Forest Schools approach to learning and development is one that takes the child as a whole multi-faceted person, rather than as something that must fulfil certain criteria. Adopting a schema-based attitude to a Forest School accepts that different children will have different preferences, perspectives and approaches to what they want/need to do and how they want/need to do it. One of the desired outcomes of a Forest School is to support a child in their own development by extending their comfort zone to include areas that they are unfamiliar with. By recognising a child’s preferences within specific schema (one or many), they can be guided into new experiences, new methods and new interactions in a holistic way.

Well Being

Dr Ferre Laevers pioneered the Leuven Scale, a scale of well-being linked to the extent by which learners feel ‘at ease’, ‘act spontaneously’, ‘show vitality’ and ‘self-confidence’. There are two scales: one for involvement and another for emotional well-being.[4] Effective use of these scales can help us to understand how focused and comfortable a child may be in a particular developmental environment.[5] The scales can also be easily applied to adults to measure their involvement and well-being, from Extremely Low to Extremely High. Extremely Low describes very basic, repetitive and passive activity (level of involvement) or outwardly negative and distressed emotional signs. Extremely High describes continuous and intense levels of activity with a great deal of energy and outwardly joyous emotional signs. [6]

Laevers argues that to understand how children are developing in a given environment we should look at the ‘degree to which children feel at ease, act spontaneously, and show vitality and self-confidence’. [7] If a child’s mental and physical needs are being met then they will be presenting positive indicators of well being and involvement, ultimately showing the ability to focus on something with a strong sense of motivation and fascination.

Forest School practitioners can use the Leuven Scale for well being and involvement as part of their reflective practice by assessing the five factors identified below.

  1. How did the planned activity affect the session’s ‘climate’ and the relationship between the participants?
  2. Was the session’s offer challenging enough and not too easy or too difficult?
  3. Can the content be enriched further?
  4. Does the session provide enough action?
  5. How much opportunity is given to the participants to make personal choices? [7]

In this way a child’s holistic development can be supported through the identification of the child’s needs and matching them with groups of activities or modes of activity designed to promote the state of flow, reinforcing the child-centric.

[1]”How To Identify Schemas In Play: Cathy Nutbrown Interview | Famly”, Famly, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://famly.co/blog/management/identify-schemas-in-play-cathy-nutbrown/. [Accessed: 11- Oct- 2019].

[2]M. (2000), “Patterns of Behaviour | Learning and Development | Teach Early Years”, Teach Early Years, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.teachearlyyears.com/learning-and-development/view/patterns-of-behaviour. [Accessed: 11- Oct- 2019].

[3]”Schemas”, Pacey.org.uk, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.pacey.org.uk/working-in-childcare/spotlight-on/schemas/. [Accessed: 11- Oct- 2019].

[4]”Ferre Laevers emotional well being and involvement scales”, Free Early Years and Primary Teaching Resources (EYFS and KS1), 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.earlylearninghq.org.uk/earlylearninghq-blog/the-leuven-well-being-and-involvement-scales/. [Accessed: 14- Oct- 2019].

[5]”Ferre Laevers emotional well being and involvement scales”, Free Early Years and Primary Teaching Resources (EYFS and KS1), 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.earlylearninghq.org.uk/earlylearninghq-blog/the-leuven-well-being-and-involvement-scales/. [Accessed: 14- Oct- 2019].

[6]”Are your learners achieving Flow?”, EDUWELLS, 2019. [Online]. Available: https://eduwells.com/2015/02/28/can-ipads-help-achieve-a-state-of-flow/. [Accessed: 28- Oct- 2019].

[7]F. Laevers, “Deep-level-learning and the Experiential Approach in Early Childhood and Primary Education”, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 2005.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.