A forest school, also known as forest kindergarten, outdoor 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.
Forest schools have a small but growing presence in the States. In response, preschool teachers are looking for more information on how to start forest schools to meet the growing demand around the country for more nature-focused outdoor play-based early childhood education.
A video from the Surrey County Council in England demonstrating forest school in action
What are forest schools: The pedagogy
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.
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. Forest schools focus on the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL).
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 children 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 wilderness and how we as humans can healthily interact and live within nature.
The UK Forest School Association has more information on criteria for forest school best practices.
What are forest schools: The physical entity
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 clothes” – Forest school mantra
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, school is held outside 100% of the time. Either way, the key is consistent time spent learning in the forest over a longer period of time.
A brief history of forest schools
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 organization 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 social and emotional development 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 social and emotional 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.
A breath of fresh air: Forest school benefits for students
- Children who participate in forest schools are known to be more relaxed (Roe & Aspinall 2011)
- Children show improved balance and coordination and quicker fine motor skills development (Fjortoft 2001)
- They become more independent. They learn to make decisions around risks (e.g. a slippery tree, a fire circle), and become resilient and self-reliant. (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009)
- Students gain confidence and self-esteem because they are the ones guiding their own learning (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009)
- Children who have attended forest school show increased communication and cooperation skills (O’Brien & Murray 2007; Knight 2009)
- 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)
Starting your own forest school in California
Who should start a forest school?
Many directors choose to start a forest school as opposed to a regular 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. There’s no official certifying body in the States yet, but you can access pedagogical information online and through the forest school community in California to build a strong program that aligns with the values of forest school.
The Academy of Forest Kindergarten Teachers based in Santa Barbara offers specialized forest school teacher training. You can access more resources on environmental science/nature/outdoor education from the Natural Start Alliance’s resources page.
Where can I start a school?
If you own a large piece of forested private property, this is an ideal location for a forest school since you will not need 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 is 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 are 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.
Recreation and Parks offer one-time use permits for the picnic areas. They don’t have a formal permit system in place for repeated use of the picnic areas.
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 is 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. You’ll also want to bring your own first aid kit to the park.
When you partner with Wonderschool, we offer an insurance policy that covers up to $3 million in damages.
Other considerations for starting a forest school
- You’ll need first aid training and a first aid kit.
- You can participate in one of the following forest school training programs to prepare yourself skill-wise:
- The Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten 4 Day Residential Teacher Training Program in Vashon Island, WA
- Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training offered by the Academy of Forest Kindergarten Teachers in Santa Barbara, CA
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.