An exploration of psychological wellbeing in Irish forest schools
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Background: Forest School is a form of regular and repeated outdoor learning. Children may access Forest School across a range of different settings, including primary school. There is evidence emerging in the literature that Forest School has a positive impact on aspects of wellbeing including confidence, relatedness, problem-solving and happiness. However, the mechanisms underlying the impact of Forest School on wellbeing are less clear. Aims: The objective of this study was to explore Self-Determination Theory and Nature Connectedness as potential theoretical frameworks underpinning experiences of wellbeing associated with Forest school. Self-determination theory identifies autonomy, relatedness, and competence as crucial elements of human motivation, with social environments that support these needs supportive of wellbeing. Nature connectedness describes an individual’s subjective sense of their relationship with the natural world. The study proposes that being outdoors, a social constructivist pedagogy, and opportunities to take risks will lead to heightened perceptions of autonomy, competence, relatedness, and connection to nature. Sample: Purposive sampling was used to select two Irish primary schools running Forest School sessions. Using an explanatory ‘two case’ case study, Forest School practice was examined in these settings. Case 1 included a group of 2nd class students, two Forest School leaders, a class teacher, a special education teacher, and two parents. Case 2 included a group of 6th class students, a Forest School leader, a class teacher, and two parents. Methods: Before data collection, a set of theoretical propositions were drawn up based on self-determination theory and nature connectedness. Qualitative data exploring the propositions were collected via observations and interviews with children, leaders, teachers, and parents. Quantitative data were obtained through the administration of two scales; the Connection to Nature Index and an adapted version of the Basic Psychological Need Satisfaction Scale. Results: Thematic analysis and pattern-matching were employed to analyse the interview data. Qualitative data were triangulated with quantitative data relevant to each proposition. The analyses identified, from the perspectives of different stakeholders, the extent to which Forest School practice reflected the theoretical propositions. Findings highlighted an array of experiences of perceived autonomy, competence, relatedness, and nature connectedness. In addition, findings revealed barriers to these experiences for some participants. Conclusions: The findings serve to extend the limited empirical literature on wellbeing in Forest School and address a dearth of theoretical frameworks underpinning Forest School. Implications for the provision of Forest School are discussed in the context of research, policy, and practice.
Self determination theory