What is a forest school?
The original Scandinavian forest schools are preschools and day cares where children spend most of their day outside, every day, regardless of the weather. Unlike most American preschools, the focus of this type of early education is not to teach academic facts, but to give kids the opportunity to play freely in nature.
There are no behavior charts, worksheets, letter writing exercises or word walls, and the activities are child-centered. The teachers view themselves as “co- discoverers” and guides who explore and experience nature alongside the children.
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What are the benefits?
If you think that this sounds like a lot of fun, but secretly wonder if the kids actually learn anything, then keep reading.
In the age of kindergarten readiness and standardized testing gone wild, forest schools offer an opportunity to build important physical, social, cognitive and life skills that pave the way for academic learning later on.
While the children are regularly exposed to traditional disciplines like science, math, physical education, literature, and art, all learning happens organically through inquiry and direct experience, rather than teacher-led lesson plans in a classroom. This gives the preschoolers a chance to do what they really excel in – learn through play.
“Outside, in real life, is where humans learn best,” writes Anders Szczepanski, a Swedish outdoor learning expert. “That’s where we make use of all of our senses by seeing, listening, feeling, smelling, tasting and discerning. It fosters curiosity, creativity and cooperation, engages our emotions and makes us care about our environment, as well as our natural and cultural history.”
Back in the ’80s researchers were just beginning to understand the many and profound ways that nature affects our minds and bodies.
Today, there is plenty of scientific evidence that nature is not only good, but great for us. With our urban jungles, indoor culture and never-ending stream of new technological wonders we may have removed ourselves from nature, but we will never be able to take nature out of us. After all, nature is where humans have evolved for millions of years, long before electronics, standardized testing, parents’ fears of abduction and over-scheduling of extracurricular activities diminished the time children get to spend on unstructured play outside.
Benefits of outside play backed by Science
1. Children who play outside are more physically active, which helps prevent obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health issues.
2. Children with nature-rich schoolyards are calmer and pay more attention to their teachers than children whose schoolyards have few natural elements.
3. Children with ADHD experience significantly fewer symptoms after spending time in nature.
4. Children who play regularly in natural environments have more advanced motor skills, such as agility, balance and coordination, and are sick less often.
5. Children who play outside have higher levels of vitamin D, which in turn strengthens their bones and immune systems.
6. Children who play outside engage in more imaginative games, interact more and get along better.
7. Children whose schools offer outdoor classrooms or other forms of environmental education score higher on standardized tests.
8. Children who grow up having regular contact with the natural world are more likely to develop a lifelong love for nature and care to preserve it.
9. Children are less likely to engage in bullying when they play in natural environments.
10. Children who play in nature score higher on concentration and self-discipline tests.
11. Children who are exposed to the natural world develop stronger awareness, reasoning and observation skills.
12. Children who play outside suffer less nearsightedness and are less likely to need eyeglasses.
Sources: North Carolina State University – Natural Learning Initiative: Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature; National Wildlife Federation: Be Out There; Selhub, Eva M. and Alan C. Logan: Your Brain on Nature – The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness, and Vitality; Naturvårdsverket: Den nyttiga utevistelsen?; Children and Nature Network
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