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Forest School: The Benefits Of An Outdoor Education

Written by Sara Langer


Fall is around the corner and as summer comes to an end, a new school year begins. Most school-based learning in western culture happens within a classroom, where a majority of time is spent indoors with small bits of time for outdoor recess breaks and the occasional field trip (if any). Western education systems, especially in the U.S., are seeing a continued emphasis on outcome-driven, teacher-led curriculum and more and more use of technology, both for instruction and homework. According to U.S. researchers, over half of preschoolers do not go outside with their parents on a daily basis, and children as young as 7-years-old are spending up to eight hours a day using various forms of media and screens. At the same time, many parents are seeking to limit young children’s access to technology and provide them with the hands-on learning experiences and connection to the outdoor world. A number of alternative education programs are on the rise, including Forest Schools, an educational movement that has gained momentum in the last few decades, mainly in Europe, and more recently in the United States.

What is Forest School?
Forest Schools (also known as Forest Nursery, Forest Kindergarten, or Nature School) are outdoor education programs where young children spend most or all of their days outside, rain or shine, in woodland or natural environments. They learn through hands-on experiences and social interactions with their peers, along with the guidance of a teacher, highly trained in both child development and outdoor education. In the 1950’s the concept was introduced in many Scandinavian countries, including Denmark, where it has become an embedded part of the Danish approach to early childhood education. Today, there are hundreds of Forest Kindergartens in Germany (nearly 50 schools in the city of Berlin alone!). Meanwhile, the U.S. has seen a rise in Forest School programs, too, including options in Brooklyn, San Francisco, Berkeley, Chicago, and Seattle.

The Benefits of Outdoor Education
Spending time in natural environments stimulates all of a child’s senses and provides them with endless learning opportunities. Mara Aberg, director of Wise Forest Preschool, located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, explains: “Natural environments inspire more creative play, improve concentration, develop problem-solving skills, invite teamwork and cooperation, and improve gross and fine motor skills. Many of us know intuitively that children should spend time engaged outdoors and there is ample scientific research that confirms our intuition. Forest School benefits children mentally, physically, and emotionally. Children’s cognitive abilities, focus, and attention improve after contact with nature. The place-based education that we practice has real academic benefits. Students demonstrate a lasting improved understanding of scientific concepts and show improved problem-solving abilities and increased motivation to learn. Children who have participated in this type of place-based education score higher on standardized tests in reading, listening, math, writing, and critical thinking.” Aberg also says outdoor time is beneficial for emotional health. “Children involved in place-based education show improvements in self-esteem and confidence, and a reduction in behavior problems. Perhaps the most important aspect of Forest School is that it promotes joyfulness and a sense of well-being.”

There is No Such Thing as Bad Weather, Only Bad Clothes
Forest School happens outside, no matter the weather. Children simply dress appropriately for the seasons and daily weather conditions. Families living in colder climates may think that a Forest School would not work where they live because it is too cold or wet to spend that much time outdoors. But you have to remember, these schools originated in Scandinavia, one of the coldest and darkest parts of the Earth, but also home to the happiest people in the world. The Norwegian saying, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes,” reminds us that being prepared for the elements makes them more approachable. The premise here is that it’s also important for children to learn what it feels like to be hot, cold, wet, or muddy, and how to appropriately take care of themselves or seek the help of an adult when they feel uncomfortable.

Risk is Not a Four-Letter Word
Forest School takes place in unlandscaped environments, sometimes with bodies of water nearby, yet there are no fences. Children are encouraged to climb trees and cross streams. While they bring little to no materials on their outdoor learning expeditions, many children are given knives, in order to learn to whittle, among other practical uses. These experiences are not seen as risky or dangerous, rather they are important learning opportunities that build confidence in young children. The children in Forest Schools learn how to react appropriately and protect themselves in possibly perilous situations. A knife is seen as a tool, not a weapon, a lesson that is so valuable and important, especially for young children today.

So, what do you think—Forest School nay or yay? Tell us in the comments below.

For more education-themed articles, check out our pieces on the Power Of Play-Based Education, Teaching Kids Authenticity, Creating A Walforf At Home Environment, and An Argument For Not Making Kids Share.

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