Education and learning


Learning: the cognitive process of acquiring skill or knowledge.

Education: the imparting and acquiring of knowledge through teaching, especially at a school or a similar institution.

Urban woodlands and greenspaces have great potential as an education and learning resource. The Forestry Commission and a variety of other organisations with an interest woodlands and greenspaces carry out a wide range of work that can be classed as educational, or that has learning potential for a variety of people.

  • Formal education - includes school trips to woodlands/greenspace, ranger/staff visits to schools, and Forest Education Initiative activities including Forest School, primarily focusing on 3 to 18-year-olds.
  • Informal education and learning - provided through guided walks in woods and activities in forests for all ages, such as birdwatching, nature walks, fungi forays and learning woodland skills. Leaflets and web-based information, voluntary activities and self-guided trails are all used. Includes life-long learning for all ages, and involves people’s own use of woodlands and their perceptions of what they learn for themselves in the natural environment, as well as what they learn from others.

The importance of contact with urban greenspace for gaining an understanding of the natural world and issues of sustainable development should not be underestimated. Education and learning in greenspace can have a broad focus, and may include learning about nature, society and interactions between the two; learning about oneself; learning through working with others; developing new skills and undertaking practical work. According to the report Engaging and Learning with the Outdoors (Dillon et al., 2005), learning outdoors has a range of impacts:

  • Cognitive – gaining knowledge and understanding (academic outcomes)
  • Affective – related to attitudes, values and beliefs (a sense of wonder, respect for nature)
  • Interpersonal/social – improving communication skills and leadership expertise
  • Physical/behavioural – improving physical fitness, motor skills, personal behaviour and social actions.


There is growing concern that children and young people are losing contact with the natural environment (Thomas and Thompson, 2004; O’Brien and Weldon, 2007). This is being caused by a range of factors, including indoor activities such as using computers, watching TV, and the range of organised activities that are built into many children’s spare time. Parents are becoming increasingly concerned about children’s safety when outdoors. The effects of a more sedentary lifestyle are likely to be long-lasting in terms of health and well-being. Recent research in Scotland has found that children who did not have contact with woodlands when young were likely to become adults who did not visit woodlands (Ward Thompson et al., 2004).

Pyle (2002) suggests that when contact with nature is diminished, negative impacts are felt at every cultural level. People suffer:

  • Physically – from lack of fresh air and exercise
  • Intellectually – from not developing awareness, observation and imagination
  • Emotionally – by not developing attachments to specific places
  • Morally – through lack of awareness of the ethical and moral dimensions to human interaction with the natural world.

Education and learning are important for adults as well as young people. Qualitative research undertaken in north-west and south-east England with a range of adults in urban and rural areas, and from different socio-economic backgrounds, found that learning and nature were issues that people thought about. Those in more deprived urban areas felt that passing on knowledge to young people was important so that they would become interested in the environment and respect it, while those in more rural areas talked about life-long learning and interest in nature and greenspaces (O’Brien, 2005a).

The UK Public Opinion of Forestry Survey (POF) and the Forestry for People Survey (F4P) in Scotland (Edwards et al., 2008) both asked questions about learning and play (Table 1). In the F4P Survey, those who had visited woods in the past 12 months strongly agreed with the statements to a greater extent than those who had not visited. It may be easier to see the potential of woodlands for learning if you actually use them. There were similar responses across age and socio-economic groups.

Table 1: Percentage of respondents who strongly agree, or agree, with two statements on learning
StatementF4P 2006 SurveyUK POF 2007 SurveyUK POF 2007 Survey: Scottish responses
Woodlands allow families to learn about nature 96 94 93
Woodlands play an important role in children’s and young people’s outdoor learning experience 95 93 95

Base: F4P, 1015; UK POF, 4000; Scotland section of UK POF, 353.

The Forestry Commission in England, Wales and Scotland all have woodland and learning strategies that outline how woodlands and greenspaces are important for learning about sustainable development, being physically active, and being in a restorative environment.

There is increasing concern about the impacts of climate change, and society’s attitude and behaviour towards the environment. Does changing awareness of the role of woodlands and greenspaces and their importance lead to potential changes in behaviour? For example, through tree-planting or environmental volunteer work, people may become more environmentally aware and think more about their own impact on their local environment.

Case studies

Hill Holt Wood - research

Hill Holt Wood is a 14-hectare woodland situated on the Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire border. Its owners bought the woodland in 1995, and they have developed a social enterprise that in 2004 employed 14 people including the owners themselves. The enterprise provides vocational training for young people who have been excluded from school or are unemployed, and has contracts with statutory agencies. Public access to the woodland is also encouraged. Since 2004, the owners have formalised a trust that now makes decisions about management of the woodland.

Qualitative data on the effectiveness of the enterprise were gathered through in-depth interviews with a range of organisational representatives involved in Hill Holt Wood, and through attendance at meetings and events.

In trying to establish the key aspects of the Hill Holt Wood project, three main elements are particularly relevant. These are outlined below, with recommendations for future work.

Social enterprise

Successful examples of woodland social enterprises should be promoted to enable and encourage others to learn and benefit from existing experience and expertise.

Specific funds could be targeted to help support new or existing successful self-sustaining woodland ventures that provide a range of public benefits.

Opportunities should be explored for creating capacity among social entrepreneurs to encourage the creation of innovative projects. Through a partnership of organisations, small areas of woodland could be allocated to social enterprises to allow them to set up further projects with specific social and environmental objectives.

Community woodland

Forestry Commission England is already carrying out extensive participation programmes and encouraging community involvement. A case might be made for greater community control in some areas where there are particularly keen groups or individuals, who would like greater input and are committed to providing benefits to the wider community.

Are there ways of facilitating social learning between agencies, entrepreneurs and communities that can lead to exposure of new ideas and exchanges of information, possibly enhancing future opportunities for innovation?

A better understanding is needed of how particular groups, such as lone women who may be concerned about personal safety, can be encouraged to make better use of woodlands and the countryside. How much difference does a lived-in and worked-in woodland such as Hill Holt Wood make to perceptions of personal security?

Education and training

A case might be made for monitoring the impact of woodland and environmental vocational training on young people who are excluded, at risk or unemployed. Are there specific benefits for learning in this type of habitat, and is there a wider role for woodlands and natural spaces in helping these groups? What impact do these vocational activities have on the management and biodiversity of the wood?

The therapeutic effects of woodlands and natural spaces on health and well-being are becoming increasingly well known. What is less well known is how these environments help facilitate learning, not only for individuals with special needs, but on a more general basis for all ages and abilities.

Forest School

The New Economics Foundation and Forest Research undertook an evaluation of Forest School in England, funded by the Forestry Commission. This was a longitudinal evaluation of three case-study areas in Worcestershire, Shropshire and Oxfordshire, exploring the positive impacts of Forest School on 24 children over an 8-month period in 2004/05. The children ranged in age from 3 to 9 years old. Forest School has been defined as ‘an inspirational process that offers children, young people and adults regular opportunities to achieve, and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland environment’. Forest School is becoming more widespread throughout Britain, and many teachers and practitioners have seen from their own experience that it can have an important impact on children who are involved.


Forest Research has expertise in socio-economic research. One of the key themes is well-being and quality of life, and education and learning is an important component within this theme.

Fores Research can provide:

  • Advice on the design and conduct of social research
  • Research project design and management
  • Advice on social issues in forestry
  • Evaluation of social programmes
  • Advice on the design and conduct of research exploring governance and public involvement.

Further information

Dillon, J., Morris, M., O’Donnell, L., Reid, A., Rickinson, M. and Scott, W. (2005). Engaging and Learning with the Outdoors – the final report of the outdoor classroom in a rural context action research project. National Foundation for Educational Research, Slough.

Edwards, D., Elliot, A., Hislop, M., Martin, S., Marzano, M., Morris, J., O’Brien, E., Sarajevs, V., Serrand, M and Valatin, G. (2008). ‘A valuation of the economic and social contribution of Forestry for People in Scotland.’ Report to Forestry Commission Scotland.

O’Brien, E. (2005a). Publics and woodlands: well-being, local identity, social learning, conflict and management. Forestry 78: 321-336.

O’Brien, E. (2005b). Tackling youth disaffection through woodland vocational training. Quarterly Journal of Forestry 99: 125-130.

O’Brien, E. (2005c). Bringing together ideas of social enterprise, education and community woodland: the Hill Holt Wood approach. Scottish Forestry 59: 7-14.

O’Brien, E and Murray, R. (2006). A Marvellous Opportunity for Children to Learn: a participatory evaluation of Forest School in England and Wales (PDF-1490K). Farnham: Forest Research.

O’Brien, E and Murray, R. (2007). Forest School and its impacts on young children: case studies in Britain. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 6: 249-265.

O’Brien, E. and Weldon, S. (2007). A place where the needs of every child matter: factors affecting the use of greenspace and woodlands for children and young people. Countryside Recreation Journal 15: 6-9.

Pyle, R.M. (2002). Eden in a vacant lot: special places, species, and kids in the neighbourhood life. In: Children and Nature: psychological, sociocultural and evolutionary investigations (eds P. Kahn and S. Kellert). Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.

Thomas, G. and Thompson, G. (2004). A Child’s Place: why environment matters to children (PDF-214K). London: Green Alliance/Demos.

Ward Thompson, C., Aspinall, P., Bell, S., Findlay, C., Wherrett, J. and Travlou, P. (2004). Open Space and Social Inclusion: local woodland use in Central Scotland. Edinburgh: Forestry Commission.

Forest Research resources