Forest preschools – these increasingly popular schools use nature as the classroom — no matter what the weather.
by Brianna Sharpe
Forest preschool programs are popping up all over the place, and parents have questions. While nature-based programming may sound exciting, the details can feel unclear — especially as most parents will not have experienced this kind of learning environment themselves. As you consider this new adventure for your preschooler, we’re pleased to help you in your decision-making process.
What is a forest preschool?
Forest schools are an increasingly popular way of educating that originated over 50 years ago in Scandinavia, and are sometimes called nature or outdoor schools. With an emphasis on learning in immersive, outdoor environments, they are increasingly available to preschool aged children. While there’s no strict formula for how much of each day is outside, students are in their outdoor environments on a regular and repeated basis. Some schools have access to indoor spaces, but they are used intentionally, and students can spend 70 to 100 percent of the day outside. Often special names will be awarded to the group’s most cherished natural spots; this is part of what is called “place-based learning,” and helps the students connect with their local environment.
How and what do the children learn at forest preschool?
With teachers who prefer quick-dry pants to collared shirts, you might not see students practicing letters in notebooks or tracing shapes at a desk — but forest school still teaches a rich variety of lessons. The curriculum is “emergent,” which means it is led by the interests and needs of the group. Certainly, traditional skills are taught, but they are worked into teachable moments, like adding the number of ladybugs on a branch, or journaling in an age-appropriate way to reflect on an activity. While students may come away knowing the difference between a cedar and a pine, ecological literacy is taught through story, games, and curiosity — not through teacher-led lessons.
“Children’s experiences with learning,” says The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, “are defined by their capacity for inspiration, innate sense of exploration, strong desire to learn through play, and their level of engagement with their surroundings.”
Additionally, Saplings Outdoor Programs says that “relationships are the keystone to any learning community. We value time spent learning about each other and appreciating the things we share, as well as our diversity.”
How do I know if forest school is a good fit for my child?
“I don’t think you need to have a lot of outdoor experience,” says Tricia Edgar, Director of Fresh Air Learning, “a lot of our kids come to us without that, and that’s their goal for being in the program — to develop that kind of experience and that kind of resilience.” Some parents worry about the price of outdoor clothing; your chosen school can provide you with budget-friendly tips, and may, like Muddy Boot Prints, even offer their own gear swaps. It’s also important to consider the idea of play-based, child-led learning; while it has been shown to have profound impacts on child development, many families haven’t seen what learning looks like when not led by the teacher. Edgar also points out that the forest school approach can work really well for children with diverse needs: “The play-based approach really works well for those kids,” she says, crediting “the culture of being really socially supportive of different children’s’ explorations.”
Whether children are learning to stay warm in the pouring rain, or playing a collaborative game, forest school can be a unique and development-rich way to learn about themselves, one another, and their world.
Forest programs for preschoolers in the Greater Vancouver Area:
Little Knapsack Club: https://littleknapsackclub.org/
Saplings Outdoor: http://www.saplingsoutdoorprogram.ca/
Fresh Air Learning: https://www.freshairlearning.org/preschool
Muddy Boot Prints: https://muddybootprints.com/
Terra Nova Nature School: https://terranovanatureschool.com/
Out and About Adventures: http://outandaboutadventures.org/new-west-program/
For more on forest preschool programs or other alternative education options for kids, check out our Education issue – read it online here.