Children from the Wühlmäuse daycare center play with a trailer in the forest
Axel Heimken/picture alliance, Getty Images

Everything You Need To Know About Forest Schools & If They’re Right For Your Kid

This unconventional way of learning has its unique benefits.

In our digital age, the longing for a childhood spent playing outside is something many people reminisce about. But, as it turns out, an outdoor education system for children exists. Called Forest School, the approach turns the outside into the classroom for children as young as 3 to high school. And, thanks in part to the Covid-19 pandemic upending in-person learning, Forest Schools’ popularity in America is growing.

What is a Forest School?

As the name implies, a Forest School is an educational system that “takes place in a woodland or natural environment to support the development of a lifelong relationship between the learner and the natural world,” per the Forest School Association. The concept began in Laona, Wisconsin in 1927, but later took off in the ‘50s in Sweden and Denmark. It’s having another revival throughout Europe and in the United States today.

Campuses are outdoor spaces where learning takes place entirely out in the open. Lesson plans are created organically from a learner-led approach. That means that teachers act as mentors or guides and are guided by the children’s interests in a natural setting rather than forcing a set lesson plan onto them.

Hands on, experiential learning is the focus with the goal of social and emotional development by encouraging curiosity, exploration, and creativity. In practice that might look like a little one spending all day outside making toys out of sticks and leaves, playing in a creek bed, or exploring science through examining a snail they might find out on the Forest School trail.


To give a better sense of a day in the life, here’s how Santa Monica Forest School in Santa Monica, California, runs its half-day programs for children 3-5 years old.

8:00 Drop-off

8:15 Morning Circle

8:30 Read a story that connects to our current theme

9:00 Learning Centers (math, science, alphabet, art)

10:00 Snack/Bathroom

10:20 Free Nature Exploration and Play

11:00 Movement/Yoga/Meditation

11:30 Story Time

11:45 Reflect on the Day

12:00 Pick-Up

As you can see, screen time is not mentioned. Forest Schools tend to avoid technological intervention and keep the focus on the natural world.

FatCamera/E+/Getty Images

Forest school educational philosophy

When it comes to the Forest School philosophy, most institutions follow six guiding principles:

  • Forest School is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit.
  • Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
  • Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners
  • Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
  • Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice
  • Forest school uses a range of learner-centered processes to create a community for development and learning.

“Our schools focus on emotional intelligence, EQ, not IQ,” explains Katherine Eubank, the director of ONE Forest School in Virginia. For young children, the curriculum is fluid. However, for Forest Schools that teach older children, they must meet state standards. Therefore testing requirements vary from school to school.

While Forest Schools may sound similar to Montessori in that they are both learner-led philosophies, there are differences. In Montessori schools, teachers initiate child-led lessons, choosing an activity when a child displays the interest and developmental cues that they’re ready to undertake it. Materials are kept in open containers (like trays and baskets) on shelves and children can reach for what interests them. Think: counting blocks, language flashcards, practical life materials like small plants they can water, etc.

Forest Schools don’t use pre-packaged or prefabricated lesson materials or tools you’d find in a Montessori classroom. Nature supplies the materials that children work with.

Benefits of Forest School

“Engaging in a Forest School can contribute to the development of collaborative learning skills, by encouraging children to work with others on challenging outdoor activities,” Dr. Janine Coates of the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences and Dr. Helena Pimlott-Wilson of the Department of Geography at Longborough University in the U.K. reported in a research study of two Forest Schools in Nottinghamshire.

Similarly, a longitudinal study published in Early Child Development and Care, which followed 11 children (ages 5-7) over three years as they attended Forest School, found that “The children’s social development and emotional well-being were supported by regular outdoor sessions alongside skilled practitioners.”

Improved cognitive functioning, better motor coordination, reduced stress levels, increased social interaction with adults and other children, and improved social skills have all been found to be the positive effects of nature exposure, according to a paper published in Environment and Organization in 2011.

How much does Forest School cost?

Currently most Forest Schools are private or nonprofit organizations, so the cost of tuition varies. Eubank’s school cost $200 a week during the 2020-21 school year (with needs-based aid available). However, at the Berkeley Forest School in California, the school’s website says tuition can climb upwards of $20,000 per year, depending on a family’s finances and circumstance.

It’s best to research the Forest Schools within your region to get a better sense of the cost of attendance.

If you want your child to learn out in the open, immersed in nature and away from screens and digital distractions, Forest School might be a good option for your family.

Studies referenced:

McCree, Mel & Cutting, Roger & Sherwin, Dean. (2018). The Hare and the Tortoise go to Forest School: taking the scenic route to academic attainment via emotional wellbeing outdoors. Early Child Development and Care. 188. 1-17. 10.1080/03004430.2018.1446430.

Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009). Childhood Development and Access to Nature: A New Direction for Environmental Inequality Research. Organization & environment, 22(1), 99–122.