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What is forest preschool?

By: Monica Wiedel-Lubinski

The term may seem obvious (preschool in the forest, right?) but there is a lot to unpack to fully understand what forest preschool is.

Firstly, keep in mind that the origin of all outdoor, nature-based learning begins with Indigenous people. Our ancestors understood that people are reliant on and part of the natural world, and that our very existence is tied to our relationship with nature. There is much more to say about Indigenous teachings that honor the land as teacher. Most people know little about Indigenous perspectives, past and present. This is an important acknowledgement to frame any discussion about outdoor learning.

Most often when people use the term forest preschool, they are referring to fully immersive outdoor programs for young children. 'Immersive' refers to programming that is solely outdoors. Children play and learn usually (but not necessarily!) in a forest. Scholars attribute this model of outdoor learning to Scandinavian regions of Europe in the latter part of the 20th century.

Frederich Frobel, considered the 'Father of Kindergarten', inspired some of the first European outdoor early learning programs documented in the 1950's in Denmark. These are also referred to as 'forest kindergarten' programs. Goesta Frohm developed 'rain or shine' schools ('I Ur och Skur') in the 1950's as well, which eventually became a formalized approach to forest school in Sweden, recognized in 1985. Outdoor programs such as German 'waldkindergarten' and 'waldkitas' and 'nature kindergartens' in the United Kingdom also emerged in mid-century. They, too, became officially recognized as a form of child care in the late twentieth century.

There is some dispute over the first 'nature preschool' in the U.S., but many attribute New Canaan Nature Center Preschool in CT with this honor, operating since 1967. Several nature preschools and forest kindergarten programs emerged throughout the second half of the 20th century, including: Schlitz Audubon Nature Center nature preschool, WI (2003); Audubon Naturalist Society's nature preschool, D.C. (2006), Dodge Nature Center's nature preschool, MN; Chippewa Nature Center's nature preschool, MI (2007); and Irvine Nature Center's nature preschool, MD (2008). Cedarsong Forest School, founded by the late Erin Kenny in WA (2007) is considered the first German-inspired forest kindergarten in the U.S. with entirely immersive outdoor learning.

While there are differences from one program to the next, they share many commonalities. Broadly speaking, forest preschools run mixed-age classes (somewhere between 3-7 years old), are child-directed, and rich with unstructured free play outdoors. There is little interference or direction from teachers and few, if any, materials other than what nature provides.

American forest schools and forest preschools apply many principles from European forest schools and forest kindergartens and mold them to meet uniquely American settings. Concepts of learning in, about, with, and for nature are transposed into distinct place-based settings (EX. forest, meadow, desert, beach, mountains, marsh, etc.). Acknowledging and learning about the indigenous people of the region is another way forest schools develop an authentic sense of place. Children explore local habitats as they develop a relationship with flora, fauna, rocks, fungi, waterways, and other elements of the environment.

Forest preschools are immersive, meaning they are held entirely outdoors immersed in nature. They do not use indoor classrooms, except for shelter in extreme weather. They have thorough safety routines (including risk benefit assessments) and use outdoor shelters or canopies as needed. But one thing is certain: they offer seasonal, all-weather nature play which is how learning emerges.

There are a range of skills that unfold in forest schools and can be mapped back to curricular goals and developmentally appropriate milestones. Some forest schools utilize an entirely emergent curriculum while others incorporate intentional teaching practices to enhance skill development. In either instance, emphasis is placed on child-directed learning that values process-based experiences above end products. Unstructured nature play is rich with natural skill development, which well-trained teachers document to make learning visible. Skills in social, emotional, physical, cognitive, and linguistic development are a natural outgrowth of this approach.

Notably, a common thread of values are at the core of forest and nature schools. Children develop empathy, kindness, and gratitude for each other, themselves, and the natural community. The freedom of nature play invites deep nature connection and environmental literacy, which nourishes budding values of compassion, love, and respect.

Want to learn more about outdoor preschools? Here is a wonderful article from the New York Times that examines Preschool Without Walls.

What is a forest preschool?: Welcome
What is a forest preschool?: Image
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