Learning Theories

At Coille Mara Forest School we embrace the learning theories of Penny Greenland, Guy Claxton, Piaget and Vygotsky and mould them together with our own life experience and our continued growth in the area of child development and holistic learning.

Constructivism and Social Constructivism

The contributions of Piaget and Vygotsky

Constructivism is the theory of teaching and learning based on the idea that cognition is developed through mental construction. This suggests that we learn by layering new experiences and knowledge on top of past experiences and knowledge, thereby expanding our knowledge of the world around us. 

Piaget believed that learning happens differently at different developmental stages and went on to break down and identify four stages; sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operational, and formal operational. He held that one stage must come after the one before and in this way, one learns to gradually construct one’s worldview through their interaction with it.

“The child as the scientist”

Viggotsky added the social to constructivism by adding his theory of the more knowledgeable other. We learn by seeing another doing what we ourselves cannot yet do and then imitate what we see. 

“The child as the apprentice”

He also theorises that we all have a zone of proximal development. What this identifies is the next step of learning, in any direction, which is available to the learner, based on what they already know or are able to do.


At forest school, we embrace mixed age and ability groups to nurture the innate ability to learn from each other. We plan each session based on our observations of the previous session in order to repeat or layer experiences and put in place scaffolding where needed to expand the zone of proximal development for individuals. Children have lots of free play time to explore, experiment, and revisit whatever suits them on a given day.

Building Learning Power

Guy Claxton's Theory on the Four R's

Tippy Tap

The idea of Building Learning Power (BLP) is that the ability to learn is itself learnable. It is broken down into the 4R’s: Resilience, Resourcefulness, Reflectiveness, and Reciprocity. By focusing attention on the importance of these aspects of learning, the educator can help children strengthen all the ingredients and capacities which go to make up real-life intelligence. Guy Claxton encourages the recognition of the importance of the process, not just the product, of an activity. It is during the process that the learner is building mental fitness, therefore it is vital to recognise and give value to the drafts and setbacks which took place.

Building Learning Power says the educator must recognise the habits and attitudes of the minds they are cultivating and invite students to exercise and strengthen within the learning environment they are providing. Rather than supporting and stretching the muscles for remembering, reasoning, and regurgitating, which are perhaps valuable for exam situations, BLP shift to a more valuable set of learning muscles. The 4R’s, help children to transfer these skills to habitual dispositions.

At Forest School children are placed in a natural space and given ample opportunity to explore, experiment, take risks, build community and learn new skills. Forest school practitioners are aware of the importance of standing back and allowing participants to make mistakes.  They are given room to try a different way or decide for themselves if a risk is too great for them to handle. This environment nurtures the child’s inert curiosity and builds learning power.

Developmental Movement Play

Penny Greenland's Theory of How Learning and Movement are Connected

The theory of developmental movement play points out that we as humans are born with lots of developmental ‘work’ to do. To manage this, we are born ‘experience expectant’, that is, we as a species are hardwired to seek out the kinds of experiences we need in order to meet our own developmental needs. As young beings, we find these experiences mostly, if not solely, through play. Penny Greenland, with her theory of developmental movement play, has broken play down into five areas of play; floor play, push-pull play, spin, tip, swing, up-side-down play, half-way play, and upright play.


This is a child-led play-based approach all about what children’s bodies need and the understanding that the child is the expert and knows exactly what his or her body needs in order to develop wholesomely. 

At forest school, participants have ample time to play freely and explore what kinds of movement feel right to their own bodies. Swings, hammocks, ropes, and other resources are available to support this exploration. Supervising adults are encouraging and supportive of each individual’s choice of play and may engage in movement play themselves to support a less confident participant or simply to join in the fun.

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