With technology usage increasing in everyday life and in schools, children may be experiencing a disconnect and lack of understanding when it comes to nature. While the idea of a forest school has existing in Europe for decades, it has a small but growing presence in the United States. Its popularity and integration stems from the recognition that nature plays an important part in our lives, as well as that a child’s curiosity and imagination are integral to their development and the process of learning.
Though an outdoor school may seem foreign, it is built upon principles that encourage engagement, discovery, and play. To develop independence, exploration, and confidence, instructors allow the children to guide their lessons, leaning on their interests and observations. Hands-on learning allows for fine and gross motor development as well as teamwork, collaboration, and critical thinking skills.
Rather than focus on traditional lessons, a forest school prioritizes the children’s fascinations. However, outdoor schools are intrinsically interdisciplinary. Teaching a child to count leaves can also enable them to identify which tree the leaves originate from, and doing so on a windy day can open discussions about science, from how wind forms to how gravity works. Learning about their relationship to the environment in an organic way can also improve their attitudes toward conservation efforts and how they can strive to coexist with nature. Immersing themselves in the forest to interact with plants and animals allows for a deeper understanding of their world.
Forest schools can be productive for all children, but especially for those who may not thrive in a traditional setting. Those with learning disabilities or other conditions may find that the open-ended nature of a forest school allows them to identify and bolster their strengths without the typical limitations of a classroom setting.
Through immersion, exploration, and inquiry, children who attend forest schools can improve their emotional intelligence, resilience, and overall development. Engaging with other children in a largely unstructured environment promotes the development of empathy and cooperation as well as a better understanding of themselves. Recognizing and overcoming physical challenges like slippery terrain or a campfire not only aids in the cultivation of independence but also promotes resilience, problem-solving, and self-reliance. The benefits of a forest school are immense, especially when they are full-time programs.
The deviation from typical academic subjects may warrant some criticism, but forest schools provide children with valuable experiences and opportunities. Though interaction with others and the natural world, children can develop necessary traits while also learning traditional skills like counting or spelling. A forest school may not be the ideal educational experience for every child, but the concept has been largely successful for child development.