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