Forest Kindergartens Provide Today’s Youth With Huge Benefits

3 min


Imagine trading classroom chairs for fallen trees, desks for the loamy earth floor. The bell doesn’t ring, but a creek bubbles nearby and birds chirp overhead. Children are scattered around, some playing together, others engaged in individual inquiry. Some are loud, others quiet. For all of them, deep learning is taking place.


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You have entered the scene of a nature immersion school, oftentimes called a forest kindergarten. Simply put, a forest kindergarten is exactly that – a school that takes place in the forest, or whatever natural setting happens to be the Great Outdoors of any given climate.

Nature-based education has been shown to improve overall school performance in all measurable areas, and develops critical thinking and creative problem-solving.”


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Forest kindergartens have been around the United States for a long time – at least since 2007 – and have been in parts of Europe even longer. The first forest kindergarten was started by Erin Kenny and Robin Rogers, who based their initial school off the German Waldkindergarten model. After years of immersive research in the field, Kenny developed her own teaching method called The Cedarsong Way and founded the American Forest Kindergarten Association (AFKA).

While forest kindergartens have only been in America for about a decade, people have long understood the link between nature and education. Children have been told to “go play outside” for generations. In the folktale Heidi, published in 1881 by Johanna Spyri, a young invalid named Clara visits the namesake character in the Swiss Alps where she grows strong thanks to goat’s milk and fresh mountain air.


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A large body of research supports the benefits nature has on a child’s development. In the 2008 book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder, author Richard Louv explores research that shows how nature can be an antidote for a variety of disorders such as obesity, ADD, and even depression. Nature-based education has been shown to improve overall school performance in all measurable areas (GPA and standardized test scores, for example) and develops critical thinking and creative problem-solving. These myriad benefits have been cataloged by the Children & Nature Network.

Educator Kimberly Worthington runs a forest kindergarten in Washington State’s Orcas Island. She hosts playgroups in three-hour sessions twice a week and has a partnership with local public schools and preschools to host nature day camps.


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She says one of the guiding tenets of forest kindergartens is nature immersion, what Kenny defines as “unstructured free time in nature resulting in an intimate, deep and personal connection to the natural world.”

Worthington says her days start with gathering the children together and saying good morning, then three hours that largely respect that unstructured time. She notes that children quickly start developing their own projects when allowed the creative space to do so.

“Sometimes I might offer a nature-based craft to inspire new ideas or introduce a new material but over the course of three hours we mostly just play together,” she says. “I really try to observe the unstructured time element in those three hours.”

The teacher’s role in a forest kindergarten is not the same as a public kindergarten teacher’s. In nature, teachers act as facilitators.

Children learn through play, Worthington says. “What a forest kindergarten does is support that cognitive process every second of the day. The educator is there to offer guidance, pose questions or scaffold.”

Forest kindergartens do encounter obstacles not found in a traditional school setting. Educators must be able to assess risks posed by the outdoor classroom and weather. Educators also must take inclement weather into consideration, though forest kindergarten educators seem to agree with the philosophy that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. School is in session rain or shine, though of course cancellations can and do occur during severe weather.

Matt Hebard, who runs The Nursery School in Colorado, explained that another hurdle for would-be forest kindergarten educators can be navigating state regulations. All states have different regulations that legislate things such as licensure and when rest or nap periods are required. Additionally, finding liability insurance can be challenging.


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Jane is a young 3 year old. She didn’t like hiking and stayed really close to mom when she was volunteering in the “classroom”. In the last few weeks Jane grew some wings and is souring into her new forest loving self. It’s been such a pleasure watching her grow. She has to look at every mushroom up close, touch every creature living or dead and watching her run down the path brings almost a tear to my eye. Oh these little beings bring me SO much joy, watching them grow makes me heart SOAR. Thank you Jane, for being unapologetically you. #fallinginlovewithnature#forestkindergarten #forestkindergarden #forestlife #forestachoolteacher

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In spite of the potential obstacles, forest kindergarten teachers are extremely passionate about the work they do.

The amount of empathy and awareness that children develop in a very short amount of time is very impressive,” Hebard says. “We want to get kids outside and adults as well. There are so many benefits of being outside. It’s a great childhood.”


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I am an unrepentant lover of words - and lucky me, I spend all day, every day immersed in them. When I'm not teaching, I'm reading. Or writing. Or teaching eager (and sometimes not-so-eager) adolescents about the power of the written word. I live on the scenic Oregon Coast with my dog, two cats, and five-year-old son.

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