What’s a Forest School (and When Can My Kid Start)?

Imagine a school where kids don’t merely get a few minutes a day of outdoor time at recess, but where recess is their entire day. Where walks in the woods aren’t prescribed to treat anxiety after school but are, in fact, school itself.

Enter the forest school: a growing set of early childhood centers where curriculum includes up to four hours of unstructured outdoor play every day—rain, shine or snow (as long as the temperature exceeds 15 degrees Fahrenheit).

On a typical day, kids ages three to five explore flora and fauna, build forts and climb trees. There are rules (no using sticks as swords) and adult oversight (teacher-led lessons inspired by kids’ questions). But the woods are their classroom. Activities might include sitting under a tree using a microscope to examine a fungus they’ve just discovered, noticing a nest of owls (or a tree split by lightning…or an earthworm), then recording their observations in a waterproof journal, suiting up in rain gear so they can romp across soaking-wet logs, or carving letters into tree bark—all samplings from the curriculum at the Fiddleheads Forest School, which is located in the cedar grove of a Seattle botanical garden. (PS: We want to go there.)

The benefits of an outdoor education enhance all aspects of kids’ lives, say educators: They learn to problem solve, sharpen their science skills, empathize with other living things, manage their emotions and collaborate with peers. Writes The New York Times: “There is plenty of evidence that playing outside lowers the risk of obesity, improves balance and agility, calms high-energy children, reduces stress, improves self-regulation, aids healing and soothes the soul [emphasis ours].”  And perhaps most significantly, at forest schools, kids’ natural energy and curiosity are seen as positives—not problems that require reprogramming. Writes Erin Kenny, founder of the American Forest Kindergarten Association: “The growing body of compelling scientific evidence demonstrates…that introducing children to the natural world at an early age has a profoundly positive impact on their mental, physical, and social well-being.”

One nursery school director we spoke with, who has seen an uptick in the need for early childhood intervention services like occupational therapy, suspects a lack of outdoor play may be contributing to growing behavioral challenges in increasingly demanding early childhood classrooms. Translation: Perfectly normal kids with unspent energy—often managed (by exhausted parents) with an over-abundance of screen time—are having a harder time sitting still in school. Writes Kenny: “Children cannot bounce off the walls if you take away the walls.”

For a comprehensive list of U.S. forest schools, click here.

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