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Introduction to Forest Schools: A Nature-based Approach to Early Learning

Spending time outdoors is an enjoyable activity and an enriching learning experience for young children. Children can learn about themselves, their peers, and the world around them through nature-based activities and exploration. An understanding of the benefits of the outdoors is the foundation for a philosophy of early learning most often called the forest school. These schools encourage a hands-on approach to learning that takes place in open outdoor spaces where children can learn through playful exploration.

Where Did The Forest School Approach Come From?

While outdoor exploration has a long history in early learning, the first known forest school was created by Ella Flautau in Denmark, in the early 1950s, when she saw the benefits of outdoor learning when her children played in a nearby forest with other kids from their neighborhood. Other parents became interested, and together, they created an initiative to establish the first forest school, called forest kindergarten.

At around the same time, similar initiatives that focused on integrating the natural environment into learning sprang up in other locations. In 1957, for example, a man named Goesta Frohm created the idea of Rain or Shine Schools in Sweden. In the 1960s, schools called waldkindergarten became popular in Germany, offering a mix of the forest school approach and traditional daycare. At these walderkindergarten, children typically spent their mornings in the forest and afternoons indoors.

What Does a Forest School Look Like? 

Contrary to what the name suggests, forest schools can be set up in a variety of outdoor settings – not just forests! Some forest schools are set up in fields or large open spaces, others take place in botanical gardens, and some are in urban green spaces. Each school is unique, but all forest schools incorporate the following components. 

Extended Time in Natural Spaces 

Forest schools differ in the daily routines they use,  but the heart of every program is spending as much time as possible outdoors. The spaces that children play in are open, rather than traditional playgrounds or preschool yards, which encourages them to roam and explore the environment in its natural state. In some schools, children might spend the entire day outdoors, only going inside for naps and snacks. In others, children also enjoy their meals outdoors.

Hands-on, Child-led Exploration

Forest schools emphasize hands-on learning through the exploration of nature. Children are encouraged to initiate their own playful learning as they explore the different sensations and textures of the natural environment around them. Messy play is welcome, as little ones are fully immersed in the outdoors. 

While educators are there to facilitate, support, and ensure safety, the children are encouraged to initiate their own play in ways that are interesting and comfortable to them.

What Makes Forest Schools Unique? 

While many early learning approaches incorporate outdoor play, there are a few things that distinguish forest schools from other curriculum styles.

Natural Resources for Play 

preschoolers early learning at a forest school

Forest schools emphasize using items found in nature for children’s play, such as twigs, logs, rocks, and more. While educators might offer additional items (such as shovels, buckets, blocks, books, paper, and pencils) for children to use alongside natural materials, these are just used to enhance direct nature exploration.

Inviting Connectivity to Nature

While many schools encourage children to explore nature, forest schools emphasize helping children build positive relationships with the natural environment around them, with the intention of helping children to become stewards and protectors of the planet. Lia Grippo, Co-president of the California Association of Forest Schools, writes: “What we love, we are likely to protect, and to love something we must know it. Natural settings afford the children direct experience with a world not made by humans where we can feel ourselves a part of a larger community of life.”

Supported Risk-Taking

preschool toddler in a forest school climbing

When a majority of learning and play takes place outdoors, there is much more potential for risks than in an indoor learning environment. From running through outdoor uneven terrain to climbing trees, there is inherently more risk involved when children explore nature. While exposure to risk-taking can be intimidating for some educators, this is actually considered one of the beneficial components of the forest school approach to learning. According to the Forest School Association, “risk and vulnerability are key to developmental change…Overcoming challenges or risks helps build resilience and confidence, especially when risk and challenge is explored through play.”

How Can I Incorporate Forest School Ideas Into My Curriculum?

Whether or not you work in a forest school, any educator can incorporate principles and ideas from this approach into their curriculum. A few ideas are included below.

  • Incorporate nature into learning activities and art projects. Help children develop an appreciation for the beauty of nature by incorporating naturally found materials into art projects. For inspiration, check out this article from the Good2Know Network archives: Art Projects & Activities Using Leaves and Natural Materials

  • Bring nature indoors! If your program is in a location that makes it difficult to spend extended time outdoors, bring the outdoors in by incorporating plants, flowers, and other greenery into your classroom. Invite families to bring in clippings from their yards and place them in sunny places around your classroom. Encourage children to help with watering the plants and taking care of them to help them develop an appreciation and sense of connectivity with nature.

  • Get outside and explore nature! Of course, the simplest way to incorporate the principles of a forest school into your curriculum is to spend more time outdoors. Encourage children to explore by looking for leaves and flowers of different shapes, colors, and sizes. Or, take the children in your care for a nature walk to see what kinds of trees and plants you can find in your neighborhood.

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