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  • Writer's pictureVanessa Lavigne

Forest Schools Philosophy & Curriculum, Explained!

When I first began my journey into Holistic Education, I felt overwhelmed. I had no idea what was the "right education". What I have learned in the last 5 years is that there is no perfect form of education. At Roots and Wings we celebrate many different methods. Here is a great article by By Chris Drew, PhD at To explain what Forest School are, and why we intergrade this into our curriculum.

Forest Schools are early childhood educational centers that teach using an outdoor play-based curriculum.

They originated in Denmark but have recently been adopted across the western world as a model for progressive education.


What Is A Forest Schools Philosophy

Here are some scholarly definitions of Forest Schools:

  • Leather (2018, p. 2) defines Forest Schools this way: “Forest School is a form of outdoor education that is particularly associated with early years education (children from the age of three to the age of eight) wherein young children spend time in forest or woodland settings.”

  • Turtle, Convery and Convery (2015, p. 2) define Forest Schooling as a philosophy of education that “broadly follows a holistic approach to learning, and is normally carried out in a natural or wild place such as a forest and is child led.”

  • Elliot and Chancellor (2014, p. 46) argue that “the key underlying feature of the forest preschool approach is that children spend long and regular periods of time in unstructured play in natural forest or beach environments, ranging from weekly visits over a preschool term to an everyday, all-year-round occurrence.”

So, we can say that for our starting definition of forest schools that they’re: (a) outdoor, (b) play-based, and (c) child-led.

But a deeper look at forest schools will reveal eight major characteristics, which are outlined in the next section.

Citations and Further Reading for this Section Leather, M. (2018). A critique of Forest School: something lost in translation. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21(1): 5-18. Doi: (free access here) Elliott, S., & Chancellor, B. (2014). From forest preschool to bush kinder: An inspirational approach to preschool provision in Australia. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(4), 45-53. Doi: (free access here) Turtle, C., Convery, I., & Convery, K. (2015). Forest Schools and environmental attitudes: A case study of children aged 8–11 years. Cogent Education, 2(1), 1 – 14. Doi: (free access here)

2. What Are The Eight Principles Of A Forest Schools Curriculum?

Sara Knight came up with the eight characteristics of Forest Schools.

These eight characteristics explain what makes Forest Schools unique and different to traditional western early learning centers.

Below are all eight characteristics of Forest Schools:

2.1. The Setting Is Outdoors

The setting should be outside and ideally in a forest or wooded area.

However, Knight emphasizes that Forest Schools are defined mostly by their rules and ethos rather than the particular setting. Therefore, if your only option is a local park, then that is okay, too.

2.2. The Setting Is Safe Enough For Risk-Taking But Not Risk Free

We live in a world where we want to eliminate all risks as much as possible.

It’s an increasingly litigious society. We are increasingly risk averse. And teachers also don’t want to lose their jobs!

But the Forest School philosophy is not to eliminate risk. The approach of forest schools is to do due diligence to minimize risk. But, it also accepts that some risk is important for childhood.

Risks help children in many ways, including:

  • Improving their confidence: Children will develop confidence with new obstacles that may or may not pose risks.

  • Expanding their horizons: Children will be exposed to new, unique and authentic challenges in risky play.

  • Developing motor skills: Children will develop both fine and gross motor skills while navigating physical risks.

  • Learning to evaluate risk: Children who take risks will develop experience in navigating and evaluating risky situations.

2.3. Students Spend Prolonged Periods Of Time Outdoors

Outdoor education often only takes place in a one-off session, or perhaps a 1 hour block per week.

The Danish model of Forest Schools emphasizes that outdoor play is the default learning approach.

As the model moved across to the UK, it was adapted. In the UK, prolonged periods tend to be full-day or half-day blocks spaced out over a 10-week period.

This watered-down approach nonetheless aims to carry on the Danish model.

Spending prolonged periods of time playing outdoors can:

  • Help children develop an affinity with and affection for nature;

  • Establish habitual outdoor play that can carry on for years;

  • Establish physical exercise as a normal everyday activity.

2.4. Outdoor Learning Occurs In All Weather Conditions

This may seem absurd to some of us who are used to being overprotective of children.

But the Forest School model believes outdoor play in all weather conditions is good for students.

Here are some benefits:

  • Developing resilience: children who play outdoors in all weather conditions get used to extreme weather conditions and learn that they can play through those conditions;

  • Learning about weather: Students learn that they are embedded within an environment with many temperaments and a delicate balance of seasons. This can help them appreciate the importance of taking concepts like climate change seriously.

Knight (2013) says that the only exception to this rule is in high winds, where teachers should find areas where branches cannot fall and cause head injuries.

How can children play in all weather conditions?

The focus in the Forest School approach is on wearing appropriate clothing for the conditions.

Students, parents and teachers ensure that snow coats, waterproof jackets and appropriate footwear protect children in all weather conditions.

2.5. Trust Must Be Established Between Students And Teachers

Forest schools do not remove all risks from play spaces.

This means that teachers need to trust students to self-regulate.

Similarly, students need to trust that the teachers have the students’ best interests in mind.

Knight (2013) uses the example of campfires. Teachers need to ensure students have knowledge about how to be safe around fires.

As students in the Forest School model spend so much time outdoors, they will learn to navigate fires, sticks, knives, etc. at a young age and become very competent with these dangers early on. This helps build trust between students and teachers in the long run.

2.6. Learning Is Play-Based, Child-Initiatied And Child-Led

Play-based learning has benefits including:

  • Experiences in organic and authentic peer communication experiences;

  • Spontaneity, including spontaneous opportunities for learning that occurs in context;

  • Encouraging creativity, including creative use of environmental resources during gameplay.

Child-initiated play is play that is naturally instigated by children’s curiosities. There are specific benefits of child-initiated play, including:

  • Children learn to develop initiative;

  • Children have control over their own experiences;

  • Children can experience being leaders of scenarios.

Thirdly, Child-led play means adults take cues for children, rather than the other way around. This puts the following play characteristics at the center of the scenario:

  • Choice over how, when and where the play takes place;

  • Control over the direction of the play scenario;

  • Children’s sense of agency or control over their activities is enhanced.

2.7. Ceremonial Events Bookend The Sessions

Rituals that open and close Forest School learning sessions are used to emphasize the specialness of a Forest School experience.

Ritualistic opening and closing ‘ceremonies’ can include:

  • Reflective roundtable discussions;

  • Campfires with parents;

  • Storytelling;

  • Ceremonial dancing;

  • Special foods, perhaps including foods foraged and cooked in the setting.

These ceremonies are used to teach children that “something special is about to happen, or has just happened” (Knight, 2013, p. 17).

2.8. The Staff Are Specially Trained

Training on how to deliver Forest School sessions in ways that stay true to the Forest School philosophy is valuable to ensure that learning adheres to the Danish model.

However, as the Forest School philosophy has expanded, it has changed to match the contexts of different countries.

For example, Australian Bush Kinders are based on the Forest School philosophy but often embrace unique Indigenous Australian elements. Furthermore, the sorts of foods, foraging and events that occur are localized so students learn about their special connection to their homeland.

Forest School training that is specific to the context of the setting in which you are teaching is recommended.

Citations and Further Reading for this Section

Elliott, S., & Chancellor, B. (2014). From forest preschool to bush kinder: An inspirational approach to preschool provision in Australia. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 39(4), 45-53. Doi: (free access here)

Knight, S. (2013). Forest schools & outdoor learning in the early years. Los Angeles: SAGE.

3. Forest Schools Vs Froebel

Forest Schools have several influences. The major ones are listed below.

A) Rousseau And Natural Childhoods

Jean-Jaques Rousseau’s revolutionary idea that children should be raised among nature and away from the adult world was frowned upon in the 18th Century.

It went against the then-Christian belief that children were born inheriting Adam’s original sin and therefore needed to be civilized by adults.

Instead, Rousseau imagined a fictional child named Emile who grew up among nature, away from the corrupting influence of adults.

By growing up amongst nature, this child learnt to live a simple and uncorrupted life. He also learnt self-sufficiency and emotional balance that led to prolonged happiness into adulthood.

Rousseau was perhaps the first scholar to connect childhood, nature and education to argue for the virtues of being educated in natural settings.

B) Froebel’s Constructivism

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) was the person who invented the term ‘Kindergarten’ (literally: Children’s garden).

Froebel had several beliefs about children’s learning and development that align with Forest Schools, including:

Froebel’s Philosophy

Forest Schools

Play is the foundation of learning.

Play is the foundation of learning.

Teachers should give children freedom to learn in self-directed ways.

Playing outdoors gives children freedom to learn in self-directed ways.

To educate children well, you need to pay attention to mental, physical, and spiritual health.

Physical outdoor play is important for a child’s mental and spiritual health.

Everything is interconnected, so learning cannot be compartmentalized.

There is a strong connection between children and the environment.

Students need to learn self-discipline.

Self-regulation is important for children, especially in risky play environments.

Teachers should see children as capable and competent.

Teachers should see children as capable and competent.

A learning environment rich in resources is important for learning.

An outdoor learning environment is ideal because it is rich in natural resources.

These similarities led Lynn McNair to argue:

“We need only reflect on Froebel’s ideas of learning through the beauty of nature, the glory of life, combined with his ‘freedom and guidance’ interaction to see clearly the roots and origins of forest school” (McNair, 2012, p. 59)

C) Steiner Schools

Sara Knight (2013) argues that the Steiner approach the most similar approach to Forest Schools.

She puts this down to the fact that both approaches to education emerged from Northern Europe, and likely were influenced by similar cultural beliefs about children and nature.

Below is a table of similarities between the Forest School and Steiner approaches to education:

Steiner Schools

Forest Schools

A focus on life cycles (seasons, life cycles of animals)

Children learn about life cycles such as seasons, cocoons, etc. through prolonged exposure to the forest.

Play without adult interference is idealized.

Child-led and child-initiated play is idealized.

There is an emphasis on using natural materials.

Children are encouraged to play using materials found naturally in the outdoors.

Imaginative and creative play are encouraged.

Imaginative and creative play are encouraged.

(Key Difference: Steiner schools also include indoor and domestic activities as important parts of learning).

These similarities led Knight to quote:

“Without a doubt Steiner and Forest School are a close fit” (Knight, 2012, p. 58)

D) Danish Philosophy Of Friluftsliv

Forest Schools are directly underpinned by the Danish philosophy of friluftsliv. This roughly translates as ‘free air life’.

The core aspects of this philosophy are:

  • Freedom;

  • Fresh air;

  • Experiential learning;

  • A Spritual relationship with earth.

Similarly, there is a popular idea in Denmark of the ‘ideal’ or ‘idyllic’ childhood. This ideal childhood is one that is closely associated with nature and fresh air.

Citations and Further Reading for this Section Knight, S. (2013). Forest schools & outdoor learning in the early years. Los Angeles: SAGE. Leather, M. (2018). A critique of Forest School: something lost in translation. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21(1): 5-18. Doi: (free access here) McNair, L. (2012). Offering children first-hand experiences through forest school: relating to and learning about nature. In: Bruce, T. (Ed.) Early childhood practice: Froebel today (pp. 57 – 68). London: SAGE.

4. Where Are Forest Schools In The World?

Scandinavia: Forest Schools originated in Sweden in the 1950s and quickly spread to Denmark where they boomed. In Sweden they are called udeskole (see: Waite, Bolling and Bentsen, 2016). The Forest School approach is Scandinavian and has a big basis in Scandinavian views of childhood and the outdoors.

Britain: Forest Schools spread to Britain in 1995, and now there are over 50 Forest Schools around Britain. However, many scholars argue that the British version is a watered-down approach. The lack of natural surrounds in many British cities and concerns about children’s safety mean British Forest Schools are often accused of straying from the original intent of the philosophy.

Australia: In Australia Forest Schools have been adapted to be called ‘Bush Kinders’. Elements of Indigenous Aboriginal culture have been integrated into the Bush Kinder education, including Indigenous cooking, foraging and art elements.

North America: There are also some Forest Schools in North America.

Citations and Further Reading for the Above Information Leather, M. (2018). A critique of Forest School: something lost in translation. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21(1): 5-18. Doi: (free access here) Maynard, T. (2017). Forest schools in Great Britain: an initial exploration. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 8(4): 320 – 332. Doi: (free access here) Waite, S., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2016). Comparing apples and pears?: a conceptual framework for understanding forms of outdoor learning through comparison of English Forest Schools and Danish udeskole, Environmental Education Research, 22(6): 868-892. Doi:

5. What Are The Benefits And Disadvantages Of Forest Schools?

Firstly, the benefits:

  • Children can be noisier and messier in outdoor environments than indoors;

  • Children have less physical restraints, allowing them to explore further and use materials to produce structures or makeshift toys that are not constrained by the walls of a classroom;

  • The nooks and crannies of outdoor environments encourage imaginative play;

  • O’Brien and Murray (2007) argue that “agility, stamina, coordination and strength” are outcomes of physical outdoor play.

  • Similarly, fine and gross motor skills can be encouraged during outdoor play;

  • O’Brien and Murray (2007) also find that Forest Schools may support increased motivation and concentration;

  • Children develop deeper insights into seasons and nature when immersed in natural outdoor environments;

  • Children who play in challenging physical environments learn to navigate risks and develop increased self-confidence

Next, the limitations:

  • There are many risks to playing in the outdoors, including the risks of sharp objects in nature (Harper, 2017);

  • Parents may disagree with the Forest Schools approach, particularly its emphasis on outdoor play in all weather conditions (Harper, 2017);

  • Forest Schools may be too focused on child-led activities. Adult structured activities may be important to push along children’s cognitive, social and physical development (Leather, 2018);

  • Child-led learning does not work well in societies where there is a standardized curriculum that teachers must use. If a child needs to learn certain outcomes by the end of the year, we need to directly teach that content rather than simply allow children open free play daily (Harris, 2017).

  • UK Forest School often lose the spirit of the Danish approach. Forest Schools are about prolonged life in nature, not occasional or half-day trips into the forest (Leather, 2018).

  • High costs for transportation to wooded areas and costs of extra staff for outdoor supervision are limitations of the approach (Waite, Bølling and Bentsen, 2016).

Further Reading and Scholarly Citations for the Above Information

O’Brien, L., & Murray, R. (2007). Forest School and its impacts on young children: Case studies in Britain. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 6(4), 249-265. Doi:

Waite, S., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2016). Comparing apples and pears?: a conceptual framework for understanding forms of outdoor learning through comparison of English Forest Schools and Danish udeskole, Environmental Education Research, 22(6): 868-892. Doi:

Leather, M. (2018). A critique of Forest School: something lost in translation. Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education, 21(1): 5-18. Doi:

Harris, F. (2018). Outdoor learning spaces: The case of forest school. Area, 50(2), 222-231. (free access here)

Harper, N. J. (2017). Outdoor risky play and healthy child development in the shadow of the “risk society”: A forest and nature school perspective, Child & Youth Services, Doi: (free access here)


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