A Forest of Ideas

DSCF0020About 5 years ago, I met lots of thoughtful outdoor practitioners and academics and a fair few ‘pracademics’ in a lodge in the middle of Finland and had some of the most interesting and confusing conversations in my professional life.  Words like ‘hermenutics’ and ‘heuristics’ flew over my head; ‘experiential’ I thought I understood, but little did I know. Off home to Devon with a new found excitement for my chosen field of work, I dived into reading John Dewey and trying to make philosophical and intellectual sense of my way of doing outdoor education.

Reading and discussing is now my favoured professional development. I’m not completely done with learning new things to do with sticks but I am enjoying bimbling around the educational forest of ideas for the moment.

Yesterday I chanced upon an article on place-based learning and sailing by Mark Leather and Fiona Nicholls from the University of St. Mark and St. John, Plymouth. I knew it would be worth reading as I have met the authors and, to use an appropriate place-based sailing phrase, I liked the cut of their jib. The following quotation jumped out at me so I followed it up on Wikipedia.

“while it takes time to form an attachment to place, the quality and intensity of experience matters more than simple duration”

Yi-Fu Tuan, eminent humanistic geographer, wrote this in 1977. (I did a geography degree in 1992 – how on earth did he not get a mention?) His words struck a chord as I’ve been thinking about the impact of Forest School on children’s attachment to, and desire to care for, the woods where they learn. As the setting becomes more familiar, does the intensity of the experience diminish? Given budgetary and curriculum constraints in mainstream schools, can we offer short, intense and high quality programmes that still have strong outcomes in terms of attachment to place?

P1070944It is easy to stray from the path in the forest of ideas. Different tribes have their campfires burning brightly, visible, flickering from a distance. Some camps are at war and it can be interesting to climb a tree (lurk on twitter!) and observe the debates from afar. Like Chris Loynes’ students in his recent Natural Connections Blog, I have no map of this metaphorical forest and am free to wander at will, stopping to notice things of interest as I go. As I’m not enrolled at any academic institution, I don’t have a guide either but I do get fragments of maps sometimes, in the form of references, bibliographies and the odd bit of ‘spoor’ in the form of chance tweets and conversations.

So far I have not recorded these metaphorical forest wanderings but hopefully this post will be the start of a new mental map as one idea leads to another. The next stop is ‘A Pedagogy of Place’ by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown which is available to read for free on the Monash University website.

As I beat through the brambles of social media, I keep passing by the critical pedagogy campfire and the experiential educators seem like old friends now. Any suggestions for getting off the beaten track would be greatly appreciated – please scratch them in the bark of the comments box below.

Now I better do some marking 🙂


  • MARK Leather says:

    Thanks for the mention Rich
    Anything by John Quay around Dewey
    Adventurous Learning Brakes & Brown
    Seascapes by Humberstone & Brown

    All in our library – educational beer tutorial soon?

  • geoff Cooper says:

    Great writing, Richard. There’s an article for “Horizons” magazine in the making here. I find the writings of Robert MacFarlane, such as “Landmarks” and “Wild Places” inspire adventure and a sense (and spirit) of place. His words flow like poetry over the pages.

    • Richard says:

      Hi Geoff, I’d Love to expand this for Horizons. I’ve read Wild Places and really like Robert McFarlanes writing style. If you like him, I’d recommend Horatio Clare, Especially ‘Down to the Sea in Ships’ which rightly won a few non-fiction awards last year.

  • John Quay says:

    Hi Richard. I remember having the pleasure of meeting you in Finland at Rautavara (I still like rolling that name off my tongue with a Finnish accent). I can send you some more interesting reading on John Dewey if you’re interested, to perhaps offer some further forest paths to explore. Let me know ????

  • Charly Crump says:

    As a fellow geographer this strikes a chord Richard. I often wonder if naming a place is particularly important in strengthening a bond to it. I went to a school earlier this week which had some interesting outdoor spaces/structures, one of which was the ‘teletubby house’ aptly named due to its resemblance to this place so iconic for children of the late 90s and early 00s. However, the same name was being used by today’s pupils who had presumably adopted it from their older peers. Some of these children may have never seen the teletubbies or have any idea what the word even refers to but does that devalue a name which has been passed down through generations? I suppose this leaves me to ponder whether attachment to a place is more about the part it plays historically in an individual’s community/family/school rather than the length or quality of time that individual spends there. Is it the stories about past adventures which allow us to feel a fondness and form a bond with a place?
    Thank you for the platform for pondering Richard 🙂

    • Richard says:

      Hi Charlie,
      What’s in a name indeed? It is an interesting question about the relationship between direct experience in a place and the cultural meaning / history it has in our group. I was thinking about this yesterday as I walked up an ancient drovers path in Dorset with some year 12s from London. Discussion ranged through -Thomas Hardy; agricultural mechanisation in the 19th Century, Cider and what it would be like to be a 16 year old growing up in a rural settlement nowadays.

      It also makes me think of reading the Laxadaela Saga in the Icelandic valley where much of it is set. Reading those 1000 year old tales and seeing the farmsteads with the same names as in the saga had a big impact on my experience of that place.

  • Hey Richard,

    Great little blog.

    I’m also a fan of wandering. Be it in the woods or through the social media intellectual debate, to wander is an art of its but in a world of ‘busyness’ the odd signpost comes in handy too so I look forward to following your pearls of wisdom.

    One nice little book that captures the true potential of Experiential Education is ‘Beyond Learning By Doing’ Jay. w Roberts. Many years ago I discovered one of the greatest revelations that Experiential Education is the root of social change!
    Happy wandering

    • Richard says:

      Thanks for your comments Danny,
      I agree – Jay Roberts book is great. I liked his description of his personal journey as a practitioner who became more curious about the ‘why’ of what he was engaged in. That struck a chord with me.

      Experiential Ed and Social Change is also what I am interested in. In some ways I feel that the growing rhetoric of ‘nature connection’ and ‘nature pedagogy’ can obscure wider structural issues that need addressing. But that is another post!

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