A Brief History of Forest Schools Around The World
“Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach of us more than we can ever learn from books.”
Despite it's simplicity, the concept of formalized outdoor schooling is relatively new. Humans have been learning within nature since the beginning of time, but the concept of the forest school did not originate until the middle of the 20th century.
Nature-based, environmental and outdoor experiential education can take countless forms, such as summer camps, scouting, Outward Bound programs, wilderness therapy, and of course- forest schools.
Today, forest schools can be found in dozens of nations around the world, with programs as diverse and unique as the locations, students and teachers themselves. Read on for a brief summary of the global forest school movement's fascinating history and heritage.
The world's first known forest school was created by Ella Flautau in Denmark in 1952. The idea formed when her and neighbors' children began gathering daily in a nearby forest, an unofficial form of daycare which elicited great interest among other parents in the community. The parents formed a group and created an initiative to establish "walking kindergartens" out of the Waldorf-Steiner approach to education- child-led and play-based, with adults as facilitators not teachers. Forest schools, or Naturbørnehavens, started popping up throughout Denmark in the 1950s as the country struggled with a lack of indoor space for young childhood education centers. Regular outdoor learning for older children is referred to with the term udeskole.
Outdoor learning has been part of Swedish schooling for more than 100 years however the term friluftsliv, or "free air life" was first mentioned in Swedish curriculum documents in 1928. Around the same time that the forest school concept was building in 1950s Denmark, a Swedish ex-military man Goesta Frohm, created the idea of Skogsmulle, four fictional characters to teach children about nature. Forest preschools based on Frohm's model are called "rain or shine schools" or I Ur Och Sku, with the first established by Siw Linde in 1985. Swedish forest schools often visit meadows, where children are taught to ski, sled and canoe. No toilets are provided—students are taught to walk seven bushes away, and dispose of waste safely and sanitarily.
German forest schools, also known as waldkindergarten or waldkitas, began popping up in Germany in the 1960s, but the first German Forest Kindergarten was not officially recognized as a state-supported daycare until 1993. Outdoor kindergartens in Germany offer a mix of forest kindergarten and traditional daycare, typically spending their mornings in the forest and afternoons inside. Shelter comes in the form of an outdoor toilet, open-sided tent with a fire pit, or tool shed. By late 2017, the number of forest kindergartens in Germany surpassed 1500. Most of these schools have no access to heated indoor facilities, even in the winter.
Wakelin McNeel and H.L. Russell introduced the first Americanforest school concept in 1927 in Laona, Wisconsin, inspired by an outdoor tree-planting project Russell observed in Australia. The Laona Forest School was the first school forest - an outdoor classroom built specifically for learning. The first known modern forest school in the States was not founded until 1996 in California. The 2005 best-selling book, “Last Child in the Woods" by Richard Louv helped popularize the idea that children should spend as much time as possible in the outdoors and caused a resurgence in environmental education. The following year a very marketable version of the forest school concept, the Cedarsong Nature School opened in Vashon Island, WA. Between 2016 and 2017, the U.S. saw a 66 percent increase in the number of registered outdoor preschools and kindergartens. There are an estimated 240 nature preschools in the States, although they aren’t operationally identical.
Forest School was introduced in the UK in 1995 when a group of lecturers and childhood educators and nurses from Bridgewater College in Somerset visited a Danish Forest School. At many UK Forest students are given access to woodcraft workshops where they make mallets, spatulas, and bird feeders using a variety of tools and different carving techniques.
Bush kindergarten or bush kindy was pioneered in Australia in 2011 by Doug Fargher, an educator who was passionate about children's wellbeing and development. The movement encourages children and educators to venture beyond the confines of a bounded and traditional learning setting. Whether at the bush or on the beach, each of these sites has differing characteristics impacting upon the experience of its learners.
Early childhood care and education services in New Zealand established enviroschools. These schools are grounded in indigenous Māori worldviews which feature a strong connectedness to place and a deep and spiritual inter-relationship with the land, mountains, rivers, and oceans.
In 2007, the first Canadian outdoor preschool was opened outside of Ottawa. Today the movement is catching on quickly, coined under the term Forest and Nature School (FNS).
Over the last decade forest schools are even gaining popularity in urban cities of China, despite the limitations of urban built environments (lack of natural elements, pollution, flooding) and the challenges of Chinese cultural views on education- achievement based with visible, trackable outcomes.
Japanese forest schools, or Mori-no-ie or Mori-no-youchien, are becoming more popular because they are provide an escape from the strict rules in Japanese society. Many parents are worried that Japan is becoming too stressed and high tech and there is not time to communicate and connect with nature. In Japan, forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku is encouraged for adults,so it is only natural that this sensory experience is extended to youth.
The tiny northern village of Villa Cella is connected to the Forest School ethos because it was where the first parent-run school of Reggio Emilio curriculum began.
Across the world, there is an increasing recognition for the benefits of nature play, particularly for the early childhood years. Families everywhere are now returning to the roots of communal living and looking for a more holistic approach to education that emphasizes social and emotional skill-building just as much as academics.
We believe that nature based education is the antidote to the modern pandemics of childhood obesity, attention deficit disorders, hyperactivity and depression. As the data and research continues to support the forest school model then open air classrooms and free outdoor play will slowly start to replace the the traditional school curriculum, society's emphasis on stressful and busy schedules and habitual screen time. The forest school movement will continue to grow on a grassroots level, driven by the innate instinct that learning and connection occurs through play and hands-on exploration.
The Forest School Foundation was established in 2016 to support the administration, awareness and advocacy of the growing nature school movement across the southeastern US. In 2017 they established their first preschool, the Growing Wild Forest School, providing child-led learning, play-based discovery and nature connection for ages 3-6 in Asheville, NC.