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Forest School Approach 


What is Forest School?

      Forests Schools are outdoor schools that provide children with the opportunity to spend time immersed in nature, playing and learning in local unlandscaped areas.  Although forest schools can be found in many parts of the world, this approach is most popular in Europe, where forest schools have existed since the 1950's [1].  If fact, there are about 700 Forest Schools in Germany alone [2]. 
      Forest schools are typically child-centered, interest-led, and place-based.  Children study local ecosystems, plants and animals by means of direct, hands-on experiences.  Teachers present mini-lessons when children show interest in learning more about a topic.  Using inquiry-based teaching styles, teachers prompt children to ask why and foster the development of the child’s own critical thinking skills.  Children spend a large portion of class time engaged in valuable unstructured play [3].  Children attend forest school at least once a week for 3 hours or more.  Many children are enrolled multiple days per week.
      Natural environments inspire more creative play, improve concentration, develop problem solving skills, invite teamwork and cooperation, and improve gross and fine motor skills [4].  Many of us know intuitively that children should spend time engaged outdoors.  There is ample scientific research which confirms our intuition.  Scroll down to see links to summaries of specific studies that support the forest school approach.

What does playing outside help my child learn?

      Creative outdoor play is a fantastic way for children to learn [5].  The beauty of using natural objects in play is that children need to use verbal skills to communicate the meaning and purpose of an object to each other.  A stick, for example becomes a walkie-talkie, a magic wand, an animal, or a fishing pole in the development of a play scenario.  Children spontaneously invent more creative plot lines in play where they are not surrounded by toys or materials with a predetermined use and meaning [6].  In this way, outdoor play is conducive to the further development of imagination and creativity.  


      Natural play also encourages collaboration [7].  Children use teamwork to build forts, move logs to search for insects, and look for “nature finds".  Studies have shown that children display more cooperative social behavior when they are engaged in this type of play [8].  The development of social skills like these is paramount for kindergarten readiness.

Mental, Physical, and Emotional Health Benefits

      Forest school benefits children mentally, physically, and emotionally [9].  Children’s cognitive abilities, focus, and attention improve after contact with nature [10].  Green outdoor activities also appear to reduce ADHD symptoms [11].  
      The place-based education that we practice at Wise Forest Preschool has academic benefits.  Students with exposure to environment-based education demonstrate lasting improved understanding of scientific concepts [12].  They also show improved problem solving abilities and increased motivation to learn [12].  Children who have participated in this type of place-based education score higher on standardized tests in reading, listening, math, writing, and critical thinking [13, 14].  
      In addition to the mental health benefits, there are numerous physical health benefits from outdoor play.  Children who spend more time outdoors are more physically active [15].  Play in natural areas also leads to improved motor skills [16].  Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to struggle with obesity [17].  Most American children have low levels of vitamin D [18].  Spending time outdoors can increase levels of vitamin D, helping protect children from bone conditions, diabetes, and heart disease [19].  
      Outdoor time is also beneficial for emotional health.  Children involved in place-based education show improvements in self-esteem and confidence, and a reduction in behavior problems [12].  In our program, as in many other Forest School programs, the class schedule provides abundant time for the relaxed, uninterrupted, and unstructured play that children need.  Perhaps the most important aspect of Forest School is that it promotes joyfulness and a sense of well-being [20].



1.  Joyce (2012).  Outdoor Learning: Past and Present.  McGraw-Hill International.
2.  Esterl (2008).  German Tots Learn to Answer the Call of Nature.  The Wall Street Journal.  April 14th, 2008.
3.  Ginsburg (2007).  The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.  American Academy of Pediatrics, Vol. 119, Number 1: p. 182-191.
4.  Chawla, Cushing (2013).  Benefits of Nature for Children’s Health.  Children Youth and Environments Center for Research and Design, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center.
5.  Grahn, Martensson, Lindblad, Nilsson, Ekman (1997).  Ute på dagis.  Stad and Land 145, Håssleholm, Sweden: Nora Skåne Offset.
6.  Taylor, Wiley, Kuo, & Sullivan (1998).  Growing up in the inner city: Green spaces as places to grow.  Environment and Behavior, Vol. 3, No. 1: p. 3-27
7.  Burdette, Whitaker (2005).  Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children.  Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine, Vol. 159: p. 46-50.
8.  Bell, Dyment (2008).  Grounds for movement: green school grounds as sites for promoting physical activity.  Oxford Journal, Health Education Research, Vol. 23, No. 6: p. 952-962.
9.  Louv (2005).  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.  Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books.
10.  Wells (2000).  At Home with Nature: Effects of ‘Greenness’ on Children’s Cognitive Functioning.  Environment and Behavior, Vol. 32, No. 6: p. 775-795.
11.  Kuo, Taylor (2004).  A Potential Natural Treatment for Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder: Evidence From a National Study.  American Journal of Public Health.
12.  American Institutes for Research (2005).  Effects of Outdoor Education Programs for Children in California.
13.  Bartosh (2003).  Environmental Education: Improving Student Achievement.  Evergreen State College.
14.  Ernst, Monroe (2004).  The effects of environment-based education on students’ critical thinking skills and disposition toward critical thinking.  State Education and Environment Roundtable.
15.  Hinkley, Crawford, Salmon, Okely, Hesketh (2008).  Preschool children and physical activity - A review of correlates.  American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Vol. 34, No. 5, p. 435-441.
16.  Fjortoft (2004).  Landscape as playscape: the effects of natural environments on children's play and motor development.  Children, Youth and Environments, Vol. 14, No. 2: p. 21-44.
17.  Cleland, Crawford, Baur, Hume, Timperio, Salmon (2008).  A prospective examination of children's time spent outdoors, objectively measured physical activity and overweight.  International Journal of Obesity, Vol. 32: p. 1685–1693.
18.  Kumar, Muntner, Kaskel, Hailpern, Melamed (2009).  Prevalence and associations of 25-Hydroxyvitamin D deficiency in US children. American Academy of Pediatrics, Vol. 124, No. 3: p. 362-370.
19.  National Institutes of Health (2011).  Vitamin D Factsheet for Health Professionals.  Office of Dietary Supplements.
20.  Wells, Evans (2003).  Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress among Rural Children.  Environment and Behavior, Vol. 35 no. 3: p. 311-330.
By: Mara Gladden


Helpful Summaries of Supporting Research

Forest Kindergarten Wikipedia Page - Great summary of the principles of Forest Kindergarten and Forest School.
University of Colorado's Benefits of Nature for Children Fact Sheet - Short and informative fact sheet written by Louise Chawla, Ph.D., and Debra Flanders Cushing of the Children, Youth and Environments Center for Research and Design at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center.
University of Colorado's Student Gains from Place-Based Education Fact Sheet - A concise summary of the benefits of place-based education from the University of Colorado's Children, Youth and Environments Center for Community Engagement.  Written by Louise Chawla, Ph.D., and Myriam Escalante with contributions from Michael Duffin.
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