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The Growth of Forest Schools, Nature-Based Early Childhood Education

Nature-based school of Learning.

Forest Schools – A New Way of Learning

Have you heard of forest schools? For us it is a relatively new concept, however it was first introduced to the UK as far back as the 1990’s. It’s origins began much earlier though, dating all the way back to the early 1950s when Danish educator Ella Flatau started taking her kindergarten class to a nearby forest for part of the school day. By the 1980s the idea had gained popularity and the Danish government started officially supporting the movement of forest kindergartens, or skovbørnehaver. These unique schools incorporated outdoor play, explorations, and learning into their daily routines.

The Growth of Forest Schools Nature Based Early Childhood Education

Fast forward to 2024, and nature-based education, or forest schools, are expected to see continued and significant growth. This is being driven mainly by the increasing recognition of its benefits to a child’s development and well-being which is backed up with a growing amount of supporting research.

The Current Shape of Forest School Education

Nature-based early childhood education, also known as forest school or outdoor preschools, have been gaining popularity in the UK over the past decade. This method of education typically emphasizes learning through direct interaction with nature, usually in a forest-type environment, however there are even ‘beach schools‘ popping up lately! This manner of learning offers many positive enhancements over traditional learning including a higher level of physical activity, creativity, and even promote a sense of environmental stewardship at an early age.

Why are Forest Schools So Popular?

There are several factors contributing to the growth of forest schools and nature-based educational programs for children in the UK:

  1. Backed up by Research: There have been numerous studies that have demonstrated the benefits to children of being exposed to nature. Research from the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that outdoor play improves physical health, social skills, and cognitive development.
  2. Popular with Parents: Parents themselves are increasingly seeking educational options that prioritize holistic development and well-being. According to a 2023 survey by the National Wildlife Federation, 72% of parents expressed a preference for early childhood programs that incorporate nature and outdoor play.
  3. Environmental Awareness: Growing concerns about climate change and environmental sustainability are resulting in an increased interest in nature-based education. Forest schools are not only a benefit to children, but also help foster a connection to nature from a young age.
  4. Policy Support: Governments and educational institutions are beginning to recognize the value of nature-based learning. It is quite common now for most pre-schools to implement a form of forest school type education into their education program, even if it is only for 1 day per week. With government funding for nature-based programs becoming more common, we will only see an increase in its prevalence in the coming years.
The Current Shape of Forest School Education and mud kitchens.

Benefits of Nature-Based Early Childhood Education

Nature-based early childhood education offers a wide range of benefits for children, including:

  1. Physical Health: Outdoor play promotes an increased level of physical activity when compared to classroom learning. This could help to combat childhood obesity and improve overall fitness. Natural settings encourage varied and dynamic movement, supporting physical development.
  2. Mental and Emotional Well-Being: Regular exposure to nature has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, and even the symptoms of ADHD. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that children who spend more time in nature have better mental health and emotional resilience. Even as adults we can feel the benefit from being outside, perhaps taking a brisk walk to clear our head, so this should come as no surprise.
  3. Cognitive Development: Nature-based learning improves creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking in children. The unstructured nature of outdoor play encourages exploration and discovery, enhancing cognitive skills. This same unstructured learning routine could even be beneficial for children with behavioural issues.
  4. Social Skills: Outdoor education programs provide opportunities for social interaction and cooperation, more so than in a classroom environment. Children learn to work together, share, and develop empathy through group activities in natural settings.

Implementation Challenges and Understanding the Negatives of Forest School Education vs Classroom Education

Despite the undeniable benefits of forest schools, there are challenges faced when expanding nature-based early childhood education:

  1. Accessibility: Ensuring that all children have access to nature-based programs can be challenging, especially in urban areas. We personally attended a private forest school with our 2-year-old, which was a bit of a challenge navigating the walk through the uneven woodland, even for able-bodied adults! Addressing these issues requires investment in green spaces and transportation.
  2. Weather and Safety: Adapting to different weather conditions and ensuring the safety of children in outdoor environments are ongoing concerns. Programs need to develop robust safety protocols and provide appropriate gear for all seasons. That in itself raises further questions however. Good outdoor gear isn’t cheap, and there is an argument as to whether this should be provided or if it is down to the parents to supply everything themselves.
  3. Parental Concerns: Outdoor play probably isn’t for everyone, keeping in mind that most dedicated forest schools will be out in ALL weathers, regardless! Children themselves are pretty resilient, but in some cases, it’s the parents that are less than impressed with the state their children arrive home in! I have seen several comments on social media mum groups recently where angry parents complain that their children came home too wet and muddy from forest school! There does have to be a modicum of common sense applied to these situations, and a clear understanding of what you are signing up to when opting for nature-based school education. The combination of a wet day and a mud kitchen is surely only asking for one thing!
  4. Curriculum Integration: Integrating nature-based learning with traditional educational goals and standards requires careful planning and professional development for educators.
The future of forest schools.

How Does Forest School Education Compare to Montessori Style Learning

Forest school education and Montessori education share several key principles that in our opinion make them complement each other perfectly. Here are some ways in which we feel forest school education can be considered Montessori:

  1. Child-Centered Learning: Both forest schools and Montessori education emphasize child-led learning. Children are encouraged to explore their interests and learn at their own pace. In forest schools, this is facilitated through free play and exploration in nature, while in Montessori classrooms, it is through self-directed activities with educational materials.
  2. Hands-On Learning: Both approaches prioritize hands-on learning. In forest schools, children engage with their environment, using natural materials for play and learning. Montessori education similarly uses tactile materials that children manipulate to understand concepts.
  3. Independence and Autonomy: Independence is a cornerstone of Montessori philosophy and it is also a significant focus in forest schools. Children are given the freedom to make choices and take responsibility for their learning and actions in both settings.
  4. Respect for the Child: Both educational models respect children as individuals with unique needs and potential. This respect is shown by allowing children the freedom to explore and learn in ways that suit them best, whether in a classroom or a natural environment.
  5. Holistic Development: Forest schools and Montessori education both aim to develop the whole child. This includes not just cognitive skills but also physical, emotional, and social development. Outdoor activities in forest schools support physical development and social skills, while Montessori activities are designed to foster various aspects of a child’s growth.
  6. Connection to Nature: Montessori education values the natural world and encourages activities that connect children to nature. Forest schools take this a step further by making nature the primary learning environment.
  7. Community and Collaboration: Both systems emphasize the importance of community. In Montessori classrooms, mixed-age groups and group activities create a sense of community. Forest schools similarly promote social skills and teamwork through group activities in a natural setting, such as den building.

In essence, forest school education can be seen as an extension of Montessori learning but with an outdoor, nature-based theme.

How Does Forest School Education Compare to Montessori Style Learning.

The Future of Forest Schools

If the past growth is anything to go by, forest schools and other nature-based educational systems are here to stay, and are only expected to become more widespread and mainstream. As evidence of its benefits continues to grow, more parents are advocating these programs to their friends and peer groups. With more long-term research being carried out into the effectiveness of forest school education, governments and educational institutions are likely to increase their financial support, providing funding and further resources, ultimately expanding access for all to nature-based learning.

Having had first-hand experience with forest schools with our eldest daughter, we are massive fans and hope to see them become more prevalent in the future. In our opinion, they offer numerous benefits for children’s physical, mental, and emotional development. The trend towards forest school type learning reflects a broader shift towards holistic and sustainable educational practices. We feel that this in turn helps our children foster a deeper connection to nature and a commitment to environmental stewardship from an early age. The future of early childhood education is increasingly outdoors, providing children with the foundation they need to thrive in all aspects of their lives.


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