Natural Learning in Forest Schools

This edition of Green Gazette has updates on forest schools in the U.S., organic producer scorecards for consumers, planting trees to mitigate climate change, and more.

Photo by Getty Images/JacobLund

A standard school day for the average American youth takes place indoors and includes brief recesses that allow students access to enclosed outdoor spaces at certain times of the day. But for some young students who attend “forest school,” most, if not all, of their preschool or kindergarten education occurs outdoors in forests, parks, or other wild sites. At these schools, educators allow their students’ curiosity to guide the curriculum, and rely on nature to aid development and instill environmental values.

According to Natural Start Alliance, forest schools vary in the amount of time children spend outdoors, what they study, and how they’re assessed, but all forest schools put nature front and center. They have the same standards for child development as traditional schools do, but their methodologies are rooted in exploring and conserving the natural world. Being outdoors has numerous benefits for young children; the National Wildlife Federation says a connection to the natural world can offer children stronger immune systems, improved attention and depth perception, enhanced critical thinking, lower stress levels, and better sleep. 

Khavin Debbs, the partnerships manager at Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle, Washington, says one of the benefits of a forest school is how it can adapt to students’ unique needs. High-energy students can run and climb. Shy students can sit alone to observe an earthworm with a magnifying glass. At Tiny Trees, in addition to learning with art materials, books, and toys, students engage in a wide range of play-based learning, including going on hikes, observing wildlife, and identifying plants and animal tracks. They might cook over a camp stove, or harvest berries to make jam. The school provides seasonally appropriate gear, and as the seasons change, so do the students’ daily experiences. They don waders and splash through puddles when it rains; they put on winter gloves and form snowballs when it flurries. The students’ hands-on activities help them grasp scientific concepts that might otherwise seem abstract. “Our children’s science scores tend to be high going into kindergarten, because they’ve lived in it for two years,” Debbs says. “They’ve seen the seasons change. They’ve seen a tree’s leaves turn different colors in fall, and then seen that same tree bloom again in spring. All those things really do help them — and even me as an adult — understand.” 

The notion of children spending time outdoors to learn and play is nothing new, but has become an anomaly in certain locations and cultures. The modern-day forest school concept originated in Denmark in the 1950s, and then spread through Europe and abroad. In the United States, forest schools are currently on the rise. A 2017 national survey of nature-based early childhood educators found 250 forest schools operating in 43 states — 100 more than the year before, with 80 percent of them maintaining waiting lists.

But even though they’re increasing in popularity, forest schools aren’t yet reflective of the cultural, linguistic, or cognitive diversity of U.S. youth. Schools that want to be more inclusive must be purposeful in increasing their reach and making their programs more accessible. For example, because its regular programming is part-time, Tiny Trees has started to host hikes, cultural gatherings, and library events on weekends so that working families who need full-time daycare can engage with the forest school model at times and in spaces that work for them. Debbs says Tiny Trees has also been looking to partner with indigenous tribes in the region to help students understand where the knowledge about the land initially came from. “We want to give credit where it’s due, and empower families with that knowledge, because with that comes stewardship,” he says. “As you get older and your worldview broadens, you’ll apply that stewardship to other parts of your life. And hopefully ‘environment’ will stop being a buzzword for trees and water and start becoming a buzzword for the whole world that we live in.”

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