Elementary School in Floyd VA

What are Forest Schools

Forest schools (also sometimes referred to as nature schools or outdoor schools) are an alternative to the traditional school system for young children in which instruction takes place outside either all the time or a majority of the time.  This method of education focuses on encouraging children to develop their skills, interests, and understanding of the world around them through practical, hands-on experiences.

At a forest school, children have the freedom to explore their environment and learn at their own pace, guided by qualified teachers trained in this method of early childhood education.

Because they are so different from what most people in the United States think of as “school”, forest schools can, at first, seem like a strange and untested idea to those who aren’t familiar with the concept.    However, the truth is that forest schools have been around in this country in one form or another for nearly a century, and in some European countries they are actually a standard part of early childhood education (one in ten preschools in Denmark is held outdoors, for example).

Forest schools produce better outcomes than traditional school

There is an extensive amount of research that definitively proves that forest schools typically provide better outcomes than traditional kindergarten and elementary schools:

  • Children who attend outdoor schools have better concentration and lower levels of stress and depression.
  • Forest schools promote the use of imaginative play, which leads to an increase in cognitive ability in children.  
  • Children at forest schools have better overall health than children in traditional schools, including lower levels of stress & fatigue and better physical fitness.
  • Children with ADHD who spend structured and unstructured time outdoors experience a reduction in symptoms.   

Enhanced Learning Infographic

Infographic courtesy of Children & Nature Network--click here to download.

Today there are hundreds of these schools around the country, many of them belonging to professional associations like the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (of which Little River Outdoor Schools is a member).  

Read on to learn about the history of forest schools in the United States, the many benefits provided by this form of education, and the differences between forest schools and other non-traditional schools.

A Short History of Forest Schools

The idea of forest schools was first conceived by H. L. Russell in 1927, who at the time was Dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.  After witnessing school-age children planting trees on public land during a trip to Australia, he was inspired to start a similar program in Wisconsin.

Early forest schools in the U.S. were similar to the farm-centered 4-H educational programs and focused on teaching conservation and care for forest life.  

In the 1950s, the concept of forest schools was introduced to the Scandinavia countries in Europe, where it evolved into the modern forest school model of a holistic early childhood education.  It proved so popular and successful that today it is an embedded part of the curriculum for pre-school children in Denmark and Sweden.  

In the 1990s, forest schools were introduced to the U.K., where they also became very popular.

Over the past 20 years, the modern version of forest schools have been re-introduced to the U.S.  There are currently over 250 forest schools around the country, attended by over 10,000 students.  

So, why have forest schools proven so popular and successful everywhere they have been introduced?

Benefits of Forest School

Simply put, the reason that forest schools are such a big success is that they just work. Study after study has shown that they result in children who are healthier, more attentive, and better prepared for their next level of education than children educated in traditional kindergarten and elementary schools.

The many benefits of forest school include:

  • Higher levels of confidence: Because there are so many different ways for kids to interact with the outdoors, nature-based education is less structured and allows children to choose how they learn, which leads to increased confidence and cognitive abilities.
  • More exercise: In an age where an increased number of children are suffering from health issues related to a lack of physical exercise (obesity, diabetes, etc.), forest schools give kids the opportunity to be outside and on their feet most of the day, every day, vs sitting at a desk in a classroom.
  • Improved health: Many studies have shown the health benefits for children of spending time in nature, which include lower levels of stress & fatigue and improved immune system function.
  • More responsible: Children who attend forest school have a better understanding of nature and the environment and our role in protecting it.  They understand the consequences of failing to care for the living things around us.

Nature Health Benefits

Infographic courtesy of the Children & Nature Network--click here to download.

Click here to learn more about the many benefits of forest schools.

Differences between forest school and other non-traditional schools

As more people begin to realize the shortcomings of the traditional education system in the U.S., non-traditional schools of all types are becoming more popular.  These include schools using the Montessori or Waldorf methods, private schools affiliated with religious institutions,  and other types of progressive schools.  It might be confusing to someone trying to sort through all the differences between the various forms of non-traditional education options, so here is a quick primer on the biggest differences between forest school and other alternative education programs.  

  • Smaller class size: At Little River Outdoor school, we have a student-teacher ratio of 7:1, which is smaller than other non-traditional schools and much smaller than public school.
  • 100% outdoors: While some non-traditional schools incorporate outdoor activities or outdoor play into their curriculum, forest school is conducted 100% outside in all types of weather (safety permitting).  
  • Nature-based curriculum: The curriculum at Forest School revolves around what is happening in the environment.  For example, in winter, students will learn about migration and snow and ice and how that forms, and in summer, they learn about plant growth and weather systems.  
  • No religious affiliation: Little River Outdoor School is not affiliated with any religious organization or faith.  We welcome students from all religions and cultural backgrounds, and encourage our student’s families to share their culture and traditions with us so that we can promote tolerance and acceptance.    

If you are interested in learning more about forest schools in general and Little River Outdoor School specifically, click here to schedule a tour of our school.