The Forest School Movement: Where Nature Is Your Classroom

You arrive at school and immediately notice that there are no walls, no patterned rug in a rainbow of colors. Throughout the day, you’re given plenty of time to design, build, and watch the lifecycles of tiny creatures. You may go for a visit to the beach, stream, or lake, nearby mountains, and wooded areas for a chance to explore and learn from the natural world. During your lessons, you build a fire, use outdoor toilets, and handle adult cutting tools.

Welcome to your Forest School, where the focus is teaching kids how to get along in the natural world.

The Forest School Philosophy

Forest schooling is an American-bred educational movement that offers students hands-on learning in a woodland environment. It’s a specialized learning philosophy that’s child-led and that fosters a very strong relationship to the natural world. Through a curriculum rich in direct experience with nature, these schools aim to nurture a sense of community and belonging among children, families, and the land.

It Started on the Farm

As you may have guessed, this natural outdoorsy philosophy was first connected to rural life. H.L. Russell, Dean of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison proposed the idea in 1927.

The earliest schools were focused on reforestation, planting programs where kids learned conservation and care for forest life— much like the farm-centered, educational 4-H programs. The original American forest programs centered around a “School Forest Covenant” which pledged responsibility to care for trees and the land.

Today’s forest schools focus on “an experiential forest school for children where wonder, love, and wisdom grow”. Programs and curriculum differ with each school, but the methodology incorporates total nature immersion, interest-led learning, inquiry-based teaching, and authentic play.

Modern Schools, Rural Setting

Today, children’s personal experiences in nature and freedom of expression are seen as the most important aspect of a forest school education. At a Santa Barbara, California forest school, the children’s daily experience is described this way, “Our students learn to identify local flora and fauna, recognize patterns in nature, build physical prowess, agility, and confidence, and develop a solid foundation for lifelong learning. Our classes are busy foraging, recognizing plants that can heal or harm us, tracking and observing animals, observing changes on the land, painting, drawing, crafting, and playing in nature’s playground. Using wild harvested materials in our play and work helps us to experience our interdependence through all of our senses.”

The Berkeley Forest School describes its mission to “instigate a culture of active citizens in our global community, emphasizing the innate connection we have with the earth.” Children play, explore, take risks, and create their own learning paths. For pre-school kids, the school rotates to various locations and “provides a place-based program that rotates through these living laboratories, where our class engages with each environment throughout multiple seasons in one year.”

The Academics Come Naturally

At forest schools, a child’s natural curiosity is the principal driver to teach academic subjects. Educators do not formally teach arithmetic, reading, or writing until the child desires it. For example, children in forest schools are often interested in building things. So if someone wants to build a birdhouse, measurements, arithmetic, and tools will be part of fulfilling that desire and so the math kicks in. There may be some instructions to read and so on. The idea is that once the desire to learn is there, students will be much more receptive to the learning.

Common Core Rebellion

Parents of forest school children are often responding to what they see as unnecessary pressure on kids to engage in formal testing at ever-younger ages. It’s not just the early and continuous testing that Common Core requires, it’s the confusion many students experience when they’re subjected to its “new” teaching methods that end up stifling their confidence.

Forest schools offer tremendous simplicity and a chance to get on a learning path that is entirely self-directed.

Would you consider a forest school for your kids?

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