Forest Schools Take The Roof Off Traditional Education

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

At Ann Arbor Forest School, for five hours a day, four day a week, in every kind of weather — including the freezing Michigan temperatures — most of school takes place outside. Yes, outside-outside.

As a forest school, they say they are “based on learning in the natural environment. Children at the Ann Arbor Forest School enjoy fresh air, freedom to explore and make discoveries, and organic opportunities to collaborate with their peers and make connections to the world around them.”

While the school focuses on kindergarten readiness, it may not be the type of readiness you’re thinking of. Most kids spend their time in preschool sitting in seats — only 8% of their time, according to The New York Times, was spent on outdoor free play. And when we take the roof off the school, kids experience some shockingly important benefits.

What the heck is a Forest School?

A forest school, in general, is a school for younger children ages 3-6, though some go younger or older, and emphasizes time spent outside in nature, using unstructured time and child-led learning rather than lesson planning as teaching strategies. They may, as the Times states, notice that rain has caused the stream levels to rise, helping them to connect cause and effect. They may learn bird calls, which experts say may help pre-reading skills.

“Rolling down the hill,” the Times says, “becomes a physics lesson,” and risky play, such as climbing trees and even using knives, is usually encouraged. They stay outdoors in all weather, inclement or otherwise: no wimping out in rain or sleet or storm. They really do take the roof off the school.

Most importantly, forest schools are play-based. Kids don’t sit in desks; they don’t spend time memorizing vocabulary, and they don’t get drilled on their numbers. Instead, they learn patterns with pine cones, and practice their pincer-grip with sticks. This stands in stark relief to the current preschool model, which looks like the old kindergarten, which looks like the old first grade.

My mother-in-law, who taught traditional preschool for years, was expected to teach, and she was very, very good at it: they grew beans NASA sent to the moon for science class, and she sent her kids off knowing their letters and numbers.

Not kids in a forest school. They get muddy. They eat wild blackberries. They dig in the dirt and poke at animal scat with a stick.

According to the Novak Djokovic Foundation, a leading expert in forest schools, forest schools are built on the premises that all children need to explore and discover, that kids are “equal, unique, and valuable,” that they should “face appropriate risks and challenges” and “experience regular success,” that they should “develop positive relationships with themselves and other people,” and that they are entitled “to choose, to initiate and drive their own learning process and development.”

Being outdoors in a play-based environment accomplishes these things, where kids make their own successes, take their own risks, develop their own play.

So What Benefits Do A Forest School Provide?

First, of course, there’s all the benefits kids gets from being outdoors. We can all lament that kids don’t spent enough time outside in this day and age. But we know the benefits of outdoor time are huge. According to Harvard University, it provides needed vitamin D, improves executive functioning (“the skills that help us plan, prioritize, troubleshoot, negotiate, and multitask”), gives them their hour of active time a time, and aides socialization. The Child Mind Institute says time spent outdoors builds children’s confidence, promotes creativity and imagination, teaches responsibility for living things, varies stimulation from the typical electronics they’re used to, makes them think, and reduces stress and fatigue. Some say it can help with ADHD.


According to Forbes, there is reliable evidence that outdoor time can treat or cure obesity; help high blood pressure; aide all sorts of mental illness from depression to anxiety to stress; reduce the instance of nearsightedness; help with asthma and other lung diseases; treat pain and injuries (in the case of forest schools, risky play may help reduce injuries in the future by teaching children their limits); and regulate sleep.

As for that reduction in injuries? According to the Times, children who engage in risky play tend to reap many benefits, including improved motor function, risk assessment, problem solving and resilience. So kids who take more risks — like in forest schools —tend to hurt themselves less later.

Moreover, one very small British study observed that several disadvantaged kids, when put through a forest school for three years, showed increased reading, writing, and math scores; they were more likely to attend school, self-regulate, and show resilience, according to the Times.

It’s Not For Everyone, But …

Obviously, there are problems — with access, mostly. Forest schools are expensive; they tend to have a higher staff ratio, which raises their price. Students don’t usually go full-time, making them difficult to swing for working parents, and even The Free Forest School, offered once a week, requires caregiver to be present, negating the access to the working class. While they can be offered in any greenspace whatsoever, they tend to be more prevalent when the area’s greener (i.e,, not in poorer, urban areas where greenspace isn’t a priority). There’s also the cost of outdoor gear for small children, which not only gets pricey, but gets outgrown and ruined quickly.

But it’s not an all-or-nothing prospect. Schools can incorporate the principles of a forest school into their curriculum — the elements of outdoor free play, with any kind of green space: you don’t need to have a forest to have a forest school! The Times talks about “a nature-based preschool at a garden on the Lower East Side and another in Prospect Park, among others,” and says, “some programs even take place in the desert.” You can emphasize free play and child-centered learning in a natural environment some of the time without doing it all of the time, and we’d all agree that we’d rather kids get outside than not. You may not want your kid outside in subfreezing Michigan temperatures, but a sunny day in March, using a nearby wooded lot, can incorporate all the same ideas as a traditional forest school without the forest or the hefty infrastructure — or the usually hefty tuition.

So there are problems. But if you send your kid to preschool, think about this: When you pick him up, he could hand you a piece of “art” he made according to the teacher’s instructions: paste the red circle here. Now put googly eyes here. Add three feathers. Paste the feet on. Look, you made a turkey! Or she could be covered in mud from head to toe, mouth stained with berries. She might have a Band-Aid on from scraping her hand on a rock. But she’s got a pinecone she made into some kind of porcupine-thing in her hand, and she’s exhausted. She spent the day making up songs and building a fort with her friends.

Both of them learned things.

Both of them did things.

We need to ask ourselves what we think is more appropriate for our small children to learn and do. Should they sit or run? Should they learn letters or build forts? Should they wait for instructions about what to paste where, or should we just let them run free?

A forest school would tell you to let them run.

A traditional school would tell them to learn their letters.

A forest school may not be available or accessible for all of us. But we can demand the traditional school take off the roof. At least some of the time.

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