Forest School Is My Kids' New Favorite Place to Go

One day per week, they get an education that the classroom can never teach.

kids sitting on a log at forest school with backpacks

At Last Forest Schools

On Mondays, two of my children get ready for school in an unusual way. Each packs a large plastic bin with two changes of clothes, plenty of food and water, a pair of rubber boots, splash or snow pants, hats, mitts, and sometimes a thermos of hot chocolate. 

Then, instead of walking them to school as I do on the other days, I drop them off at a nearby provincial park where they spend the entire day outside at a certified "forest school." From 8:30 till 3:30 they stay outdoors, no matter the weather, and explore the surrounding forest, swamps, and Lake Huron shoreline with a small group of kids. When I pick them up at the end of the afternoon, they're red-cheeked and exuberant—and never want to leave.

When I first signed them up for forest school, I loved the idea, but was skeptical of a few things: Would they be comfortable outside for that long? Would they stay engaged and stimulated for that many hours? Would the teachers let them act freely, or would it be regulated for safety in the way that conventional school is?

My concerns quickly melted away as I watched how quickly and joyfully they adapted to the program. When asked if time ever seemed to move slowly, they stared at me in confusion. They didn't understand my question, which conveniently answered it. 

The Joy of Free Play

I quizzed them about teacher oversight and was relieved to learn that their role is simply to help should something go wrong. The kids direct their own play, climbing tall trees and testing new ice on the frozen lake, building fires and forts and even whittling sticks with knives provided by the school (as long as it's done in a public space where a teacher can see). They engage in many of the elements of risky play that are considered so crucial for child development.

They are never told their play is too high, too sharp, or too fast, but are rather trusted to self-regulate, which is wonderfully refreshing. This is a point also made by occupational therapist Angela Hanscom in her book, "Balanced and Barefoot," who says children with healthy neurological systems "naturally seek out the sensory input they need on their own." They don't need adults telling them which sensations are safe or dangerous.

kids climb on fallen trees at forest school

At Last Forest Schools

Something else my sons appreciate about forest school is not being told to move on to the next activity, but being left to stay in a particular spot for as long as their curiosity allows. The teacher follows the kids, instead of vice versa. There is no scheduled mealtime; the children have access to their lunch boxes and can snack whenever they please. Sometimes my kids say they forgot to eat because they were so absorbed in their games—although they always seem to find time for their hot chocolate!

A Different Skill Set

"What about all the things they're missing in real school?" concerned parents have asked me. Neither of their classroom teachers thinks it's a problem that my kids miss Mondays—they keep me updated if something important happens—but most significantly, my kids are learning new and different skills that a classroom cannot teach.

These skills include learning to identify species in a living, changing environment. Whenever a child finds a bird or a salamander or a leaf they do not know, the teacher brings out stacks of laminated identification pages that the children can study at a picnic table. They absorb that information, coming home with names and knowledge that continually surprises and impresses me. 

They are learning to sit silently, in cooperation with others, and observe nature up close—a skill that's virtually impossible to develop in a noisy, overcrowded, and overstimulating classroom setting. One day they spent feeding sunflower seeds to a dozen tiny chickadees and nuthatches. This involved staying perfectly still as they waited for the birds to land on their outstretched hands, their shoulders, their heads. The nuthatches were far more skittish, they told me later, while the chickadees were bolder, coming back for more seeds even after the kids couldn't resist grabbing their feet and holding them captive for a few seconds.

kids sitting around a campfire at forest school

At Last Forest Schools

Their confidence is blossoming as they tackle physical tasks and games that schools would never allow—climbing trees, building forts, lifting logs and rocks to inspect beneath, having stick fights, playing tag across slippery stones in a stream, and cooking bannock over fires they build themselves (also practical for warming up on cold snowy days). These were things I've always let them do at home, but they haven't had other kids to do it with. The group setting makes it more exciting and interactive.

They are making social connections across a broader range of age groups, since children from ages 4 to 12 attend the same forest school program. They cooperate together, using their different sizes and strengths to fulfill various roles within their games. My boys describe feeling a special bond to "forest school kids" that they encounter elsewhere in our small town. Even among parents, I feel there's a sense of camaraderie and basic understanding of another family's parenting philosophy when we're both participants in the program.

I love that forest school is shaping my boys' relationship with the outdoors. They're learning how to spend extended periods of time in nature, how to dress comfortably for it, what to do to pass the time, and developing knowledge that will make them more inclined to protect nature in coming decades—and we all know the Earth needs its nature defenders more than ever now.

kids standing near a frozen pond at forest school

At Last Forest Schools

Money Well Spent

The sole downside to forest school is that it has made my youngest child less inclined to attend regular school. He asks why he can't go to forest school every single day. My answer: It's not available, and even if it were, it would be too expensive. It's a once-per-week treat that has become some of the best money I've ever invested in their education—and will continue to do so for as long as I can.

I realize that not every family can afford to send their children to a private forest school, or even have access to such a program. (It's fairly new in our rural area, too.) But I will say that sometimes these financial decisions are a matter of priority, and if you can manage to reallocate funds that might be spent on organized sports or other extracurricular activities to a weekly forest school experience, it might be money well-spent. Now that I've invested in the program, there are many things I'd gladly go without in order to continue funding forest school for my children. (Most of their outdoor gear was purchased secondhand, which helped to trim costs.)

Relatedly, if you cannot afford it, it's worth reaching out to a local forest school to inquire about subsidies, or even cheaper half-day programs. Another idea is to create your own forest school with a few similarly-minded parents who are willing to donate a half or full day to supervising kids in an outdoor setting at no additional cost.

I feel profound gratitude that such a program exists at all, and that I discovered it in time to register my children. Only one semester in, I fully intend to continue doing this for as long as they're eligible to attend, and have no doubt that it'll be a formative educational experience in their young lives.

If it's something you've considered before but have been reluctant to go out on a limb and try with your kids (and there seem to be many parents in that category!), I urge you to do so.