A forest school, also known as forest kindergarten, outdoor nursery, forest nursery, nature kindergarten, or nature preschool, is a type of early childhood education that takes place in forests or woodlands. The curriculum is fluid, focusing on learner-led outdoor play that encourages curiosity and exploration.
You may not have heard of this type of early childhood education before. That’s because forest schools have a small but growing presence in the States.
Forest school differs from traditional outdoor education in that learning isn’t focused on scientific inquiry but instead led by the child’s own curiosity and interests in an unstructured way. Let’s look deeper at the theory behind this type of learning and how it translates into a physical school:
Forest school is both a learning theory/pedagogy and a physical entity. The theory behind forest school explains the way children learn through this type of education. The approach or physical entity explains where and how this learning happens.
Learner-led: Instead of presenting investigative questions, instructors of forest schools observe and support children in their chosen activities and forms of play. This allows children to develop confidence and independence as well as internal motivation to learn.
Becca Hackett-Levy, Director of Northeast LA Forest School, explains, “Our explorations are all based on natural curiosity. So if the children become interested in the ability of water to mix with dirt and become mud, we investigate it. Like today we made mud. You can paint with mud, make sculptures with mud, talk about what’s in mud and dirt.
“Another time we started investigating the changing of the magnolia leaves, so we glued them together but as they dried they didn’t stick anymore. One of my students conjectured this was because of the moisture of the leaves. I’m just there as a guide – he figured out that the leaf changed – not the glue – by following his own curiosity and without me guiding him to that conclusion. He’s three and a half.”
Hands-on experiential learning: Forest schools are based on hands-on learning to foster a child’s holistic development. Students build interpersonal skills like teamwork, communication, cooperation, and problem-solving. They also build spatial and motor development. Unlike traditional indoor school, forest schools do not have tests and assignments, but students are praised for skill sharing.
Supported risk-taking: Students are taught to take risks with the support of an instructor. For example, students may explore climbing trees, using metal tools, and lighting a fire. Instructors help students assess risks and benefits so their decisions are always informed. Forest schools have a higher instructor-to-learner ratio than other types of learning environments. Risk-taking builds resilience and self-esteem in young people that will improve their judgment as they grow.
Environmental literacy: Students learn about nature and the world around them. They grow a better understanding and appreciation for the wilderness and how we as humans can healthily interact and live within the natural environment.
Here’s a video from the SBS Dateline featuring Danish forest schools in action:
Many forest schools in Europe are based in woodlands around a central campfire, although this isn’t always a feature. Students attend forest school in all weather and climates (unless the weather is deemed too dangerous) to experience different sensations.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing” – Forest school mantra
Forest schools may not always be held in the forest, but they are usually located in a diverse and rich outdoor environment.
Some schools offer variations in which students attend school in the forest only once a week for a certain number of weeks, but the more time they spend in the forest, the more they reap the benefits of forest school. Ideally, educators conduct lessons outside 100% of the time. Either way, the key is consistent time spent learning in the forest over a longer period of time.
The Laona Forest School in Wisconsin was the first “school forest” that was also used as a forest school starting in the 1920’s.
However, Scandinavia popularized forest schools as we know them today starting in the 1950’s. Forest schools started popping up in Denmark as the country struggled with a lack of indoor space for young childhood education centers. The trend later spread to Sweden in the 1980’s. Today, forest schools can be found around the world in countries like Germany (“Waldkindergarten”), the UK, Australia (“bush kindy”), New Zealand, and beyond.
Tender Tracks in Fairfax, California was founded in 1996 and is the first known modern forest school in the States. According to Natural Start Alliance, an alliance of educators, parents, and organizations that advocates for connecting children with the environment, there are an estimated 240 nature preschools in the States, although they aren’t operationally identical.
Forest schools are growing in popularity in the States as parents realize the focus on test-taking instead of hands-on experiences and time with nature is detrimental to children.
When kindergarten was created in Germany in the 1800’s, there was an integrated outdoor play element that has since been pushed aside in favor of preparing children academically for elementary school.
Parents are now returning to the roots of early childhood education and looking for a more holistic approach that considers not only more “academic” types of knowledge but reflective and collaborative skills as well.
In a deeper sense, the idea of learning through play in nature is instinctive to human beings. It’s a type of learning as old as our species.
The scientific literature supports that children benefit from spending time outdoors in general. Forest school specifically benefits young learners in the following evidence-based ways, among others:
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage one’s own – as well as others’ – emotions. According to researcher and psychologist Daniel Goleman, there are five main areas that make up emotional intelligence:
In forest school, children have the opportunity to challenge themselves and reflect on their experiences. This allows them to develop self-awareness and self-regulation. They work on empathy during reflective group sessions where they share and listen amongst their peers. Overall, forest school students gain confidence and self-esteem because they’re the ones guiding their own learning (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009).
Children who have attended forest school also show increased communication and cooperation skills (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009). They’re exposed to other children of different ages in different sized groups and given the opportunity to reach conflict resolution with careful supervision (but not always intervention) from providers.
Resilience is the ability to cope and adapt to stressful or negative situations. Research has shown that simply being in nature reduces the impact of stress (Blackwell, 2015). This means children who spend more time outside have less stress to begin with.
Children who attend forest school also become more independent because they lead their own learning. They learn to make decisions around risks (e.g. a slippery tree, a fire circle) and become resilient and self-reliant in the process (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009).
Holistic development occurs when a learning experience addresses the child’s whole self all at once. You can think about holistic development as including the following areas:
Forest school addresses all five areas at once:
Social: Children in forest school work and play together in a group or in smaller groups. They exchange ideas and stories and take turns.
Physical: Children who attend forest school reap physical benefits in addition to social and emotional benefits. They show improved balance and coordination and quicker fine motor skills development (Fjortoft 2001).
Intellectual: Children practice intellectual skills like designing and building structures, playing through imagination, decision making, and problem-solving while in forest school.
Communication: Children in forest school use communication and cooperation skills through storytelling, listening, and nonverbal communication while in the forest.
Spiritual: Children who participate in forest schools are known to be more relaxed (Roe & Aspinall 2011). They grow an underlying appreciation for the beauty of nature.
For children who do not do well in classroom settings, forest schools encourage curiosity and motivation to learn (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009). Research shows forest schools help ADHD children learn. The Attention Restoration Theory supports this finding (Taylor, Kuo, & Sullivan 2001).
Even though children on the Autistic Spectrum may struggle at first when taken out of their familiar environment and routine, a teacher who has been leading forest school for children with special needs for over 12 years says, “With carefully tailored experiences and the 1:1 support of familiar staff, most of the pupils I have worked with have been able to embrace the forest in order to learn much about themselves and their environment.”
Again, the freedom to guide their own learning through curiosity and exploration allows children to learn through play. Being outside in an environment that is ever-changing sparks curiosity and allows for new sensory experiences every single day.
Developmental benefits for children: Forest schools have been shown to help children develop in a holistic way, including through social and emotional learning. Children who attend forest school become more resilient, more relaxed and motivated to learn, and have more developed coordination and fine motor skills.
Environmental education: Your child will develop a bond with nature and grow a deeper understanding of the environment around them.
School readiness: Forest school is very different from traditional preschool and you may worry about a lack of focus on traditional academic skills. However, children who attend forest school are just as, if not more, prepared for kindergarten than their counterparts. Forest schools contribute to the development of motor skills, social and emotional skills such as cooperation and empathy, and curiosity that contribute to school readiness.
Hard to find and vet: Forest schools are fairly new to the States, although they have been around for decades in Europe. But with growing demand, they are popping up in cities and towns across the US. It can be hard to find the right one, but we’ve put together a list of forest schools in the San Francisco Bay Area to get you started. You can also check out our list of forest schools in the Wonderschool network at the bottom of this post.
Safety: You may worry about your child’s safety at forest school, where they may confront risks like learning how to behave around a fire circle, climbing trees, and using tools. But teaching young children to cope with risk helps them make better decisions throughout their lifetime. It’s true that if you don’t have quality instructors, your child’s safety in these conditions is a valid concern. You will want to make sure you trust the instructors and feel comfortable with the program they run. Usually, forest schools will allow the parent to attend a day of school and see what it’s like.
Commute: You may have a long commute to pick up and drop off your child depending on the location of the program, and locations may vary from day to day or week to week.
If the school adheres to traditional forest school pedagogy, there will be very little structure in terms of day-to-day activities. However, some forest schools take a mixed approach, incorporating outdoor education into their daily flow.
Many forest schools incorporate outdoor education into the curriculum. Forest school leaders may introduce a weekly theme and prompt children to explore the world around them through scientific inquiry.
For example, Santa Monica Forest School runs half-day programs for children 3 and up. Here’s what the daily flow looks like:
As you can see, the children in this forest school learn through many of the traditional preschool activities like story time and learning centers. However, they do so while outside at nearby parks and beaches.
On the other hand, there are also forest schools that are less structured like in the traditional forest school approach. At Little Earthlings Forest School in San Francisco, the rhythm of the day looks like this:
Activities will differ across programs. Here are just some activities you may find:
Typically, forest schools are for preschool-aged children (3-5 years old). Forest school nurseries may accept even younger children to their programs.
It’s important to find the type of early education that’s right for you and your family. While forest schools offer evidence-based benefits for children, so do many other early education philosophies. And you have to consider things like commute and being able to find a quality program you can trust when choosing a program.
You may be wondering, How much does forest school cost?
The price of sending your child to a forest school will depend on if they attend a half or full day program and how many days a week they go to school. Forest schools in the Wonderschool network cost about the same as their indoor family child care counterparts. For a full day program five days a week, you’re probably looking at $1000-$2000/month for a quality program.
Check out the following options in the Wonderschool network:
After delving deep into the world of forest schools, I’m basically ready to sign up myself! It feels like a really natural way of learning and I love the emphasis on taking risks and building resilience. I don’t have any kids yet but when I do, I really want to send them to forest school.
What do you think – is it the type of early education you see your kid thriving in or do you think he or she would do better in an indoor program?
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David Calabrese, the director of Little Earthlings Forest School in San Francisco, is a testament to how childhood experiences can have lasting impacts.