This paper presents one aspect of my doctoral research into the concept of child-centredness within the context of Forest School (FS), and how adult-child dialogue promoted and embodied this. The UK FS approach emphasises a child-centred, play-based pedagogy as one of its central tenets, however adults’ conceptualisation, and exemplification of child-centredness in practice is variable. Adopting an ethnographic approach, I visited three primary schools within one rural county where the Forest School leader (FSL) was a member of school staff, delivering FS to children aged 5-7 years. Across five visits, I conducted eight pre-and post-session interviews with adult practitioners (FS leaders and supporting teaching assistants) about their intention for the session and reflections afterwards, observed and audio-recorded adult and child dialogue in-the-field (seven adults and 38 children), and interviewed 25 children post-session about their experiences. These data were subjected to three stages of analysis to examine the nature of child-centredness as exemplified in talk through multiple theoretical lenses; positional identity, social constructivism and various characterisations of agency. Deductive analyses of dialogue and interview transcripts were triangulated to offer insight into how adults and children conceptualised, promoted, and experienced child-centredness in FS sessions.
Within the settings observed, child-centredness appeared to relate predominantly to choices children were able to make about what they do within specified periods of ‘child-led’ time; children described a wide range of self-instigated activities and some opportunities to initiate and drive their own FS experiences. However, both adults and children still seemed to privilege adult-directed learning over autonomous exploration, which reifies current discourses about the value of play and structured learning. In tension with the FS ethos, and established ideas about play principles, it appeared that children constructing understanding as agentive learners was quite frequently limited. A number of recommendations were proposed with respect to these findings, including consideration of which and how learning theories are prioritised in FSL training, or FSLs reflecting post-qualification on the nature of their engagement with children, deliberating the nature of questions posed and how children are positioned as learners. This might support considerations of the extent to which children’s competence as active learners is promoted and developed in dialogue.