You may have heard about the amazing benefits of forest school for young children and are ready to make the switch from an indoor-based early childhood program to outdoor. But starting your own forest school is intimidating: where do you even start?
In this post, we will lay out some of the basics of getting started, including some words of reflection from a Wonderschool director who just opened her own forest school in LA.
What is a forest school?
While forest schools are relatively new to the States, they have been around for decades in Europe. 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.
Learning is led by the child’s own curiosity and interests in an unstructured way. Unlike typical outdoor education programs, forest school curriculum and activities are guided completely by the children’s interests.
To learn more about what forest schools are, check out our in-depth post, What are forest schools?
A video from the Surrey County Council in England demonstrating forest school in action
Who should start a forest school?
Many directors choose to start a forest school as opposed to a regular [indoor] family child care if they live in a high-income area where there’s a demand for child care but the cost of renting in the area is prohibitive to starting an in-home preschool.
Teachers with a background in earth science or outdoor education are especially well-suited, but you can certainly start a forest school without this background.
Becca Hackett-Levy had a Master’s in Early Childhood Education and had been teaching for 6 years (and nannying for 5 years before that) when she decided to open her own forest school, Northeast LA Forest Wonderschool.
She had just moved to LA and her son was 4 months old. She started looking for jobs in early education but found the pay was so low, daycare costs for her son would have eaten up her entire salary.
Even though Becca didn’t have forest school teaching experience per se, she was passionate about the pedagogy and excited to bring this type of program to her community. She says, “I’ve been in love with the forest school model and ‘risky play playgrounds’ in the UK for years. I learned about them in graduate school and I love the way it allows multiple types of learners to be engaged.”
How do I access forest school teacher training?
There’s no official certifying body in the States yet, but you can access pedagogical information online and through the forest school community to build a strong program that aligns with the values of forest school. The forest school community in the States is scattered so it can be hard to connect with and learn from other teachers.
Here are some resources to access training and events related to forest schools:
- Santa Barbara, CA: The Academy of Forest Kindergarten Teachers offers specialized forest school teacher training.
- Vashon Island, WA: Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten 4 Day Residential Teacher Training Program
- Marshall, NC: Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools offers retreats and online training
- Chattanooga, TN: The Wauhatchie School offers forest kindergarten training
- Forest Schools Education Ltd is a nonprofit based in England that offers online forest school teacher training.
- You can access more resources on environmental science/nature/outdoor education from the Natural Start Alliance’s resources page.
The UK Forest School Association has more information on criteria for forest school best practices for setting up your school and deciding on a daily flow.
Where can I start a forest school?
If you own a large piece of forested private property, this is an ideal location for a forest school since you won’t have to worry about asking permission from someone else, getting a van, or coordinating meetup points with parents.
The other option is to use public parks. Many existing forest schools rotate daily from park to park. Teachers arrange a pickup and drop-off point with parents, then drive students to a different location every day. If you use the same park every day, you should get permission from the park directors to operate there. And in this case, the parents can drop their children at the park directly and you don’t need to drive them.
Vegetation-wise, nature areas with dense forest are ideal for forest schools, as they offer the most depth and variety of sensation experiences for children. Beaches, rivers, and lakes can be good locations if there’s enough natural diversity for children to explore.
Do I need a license to operate?
Forest schools are still under the radar in the States. There’s no formal licensing procedure as you would have if you were setting up a family child care in your home.
Do I need permission from Recreation and Parks or the city?
If you’re using the same park every day, it’s good practice to alert the park you plan to use about your intentions for their and your own peace of mind. They may ask that you purchase a permit to operate school there.
If you plan to use a park’s picnic tables, you’re better off getting a picnic area permit ahead of time as opposed to trying your luck and hoping there’s an empty picnic table when you arrive. It’s better to get a picnic area permit because permits get sent to the park staff so they know who’s going to be where and when. They might schedule maintenance of the areas if they don’t know you’ll be there.
We recommend spreading a blanket in the grass instead for any seated activities as you don’t need a permit for this.
How do I get permission from the park I want to have school in?
You can do this by going to your city’s Recreation and Parks website and searching for the park you want to use. Then you can call them at their phone number or email them if there’s an email address listed to explain your situation and ask permission.
If you’re unable to contact the park directly by phone or email, call Recreation and Parks and ask for the contact information of the park of choice.
Otherwise, you can try stopping by the park in person and asking to speak with someone about getting permission for repeat group visits.
What about insurance?
While you don’t need a license, you will still want insurance for your school. The parks will not be liable for any injuries or accidents the children have while under your care.
When you partner with Wonderschool, we offer an insurance policy that covers up to $3 million in damages.
You’ll also want to get first aid training and bring your own first aid kit to the park as well.
Other considerations for starting a forest school
Once you’ve decided to start your forest school, you’ll need to start marketing your program to families in your neighborhood or region. This process may include…
- Building a website
- Organizing free events for families
- Posting in parent groups
When you partner with Wonderschool, we help with all of this and more at absolutely zero upfront cost to you.
For Becca, partnering with Wonderschool brought in her first enrolled students: “Our first student enrolled September 14th. It’s been really liberating.”
Ready to start your own school?
Apply to partner with Wonderschool and we’ll help you get the ball rolling on setting up your forest school program.
Either way, don’t give up on your dreams of opening your own forest school. The world needs you! And it just might be the most fulfilling thing you’ve ever done. For Becca, starting her own program was incredibly empowering:
“It’s hard to put into words how amazing this opportunity is to be the Director of a forest school. It’s a dream come true.”
Wonderschool partners with talented teachers to create high-quality preschools in local communities.
Email us today at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you start your own child care program or preschool – forest-based or not.