Preschool Programs Taking Place 100% Outside? Learn About Forest Schools.

Want more time for your child to play outdoors? How about preschools programs that take place 100% outside? In Europe, there is a tradition of forest schools going back to the early 1900s: outdoor daycares and preschools that focus on child-led play utilizing naturally occurring materials (think counting with rocks or building structures with sticks and leaves). In Germany, forest schools are even a recognized form of childcare that the government subsidizes.

Nature based preschools are a new concept of preschools taking entirely outdoors that is starting to make its way into the States.
Parks Plus Creation’s Spire School in action in San Francisco’s Presidio.

This month, we interviewed two pioneers of forest schools in San Francisco: Parks Plus Creation and Nature Nurture (both schools take place in the Presidio with occasional use of areas such as Golden Gate Park and Baker Beach). Here’s what we learned:

What makes a forest school different from traditional preschools?

  • Time outside. At forest schools, children are outside 100% of the time or close to it, rain or shine (with the help of waterproof clothing of course) unless the weather is deemed unsafe (high winds or lightning).
  • Activities and materials provided by nature. Observing birds and slugs, going on nature walks, building forts with sticks and leaves, and safely climbing trees are common activities at forest schools.  Teachers may bring along shovels and a magnifying glass, and of course a first aid kit, but little else.
  • Schedule. Many forest schools are offered only part-time, and some are used as a supplement in addition to a traditional preschool. Nature Nurture, which offers morning and afternoon programs, tells us that most of their students attend another preschool for the other part of the day. Parks Plus Creation offers Spire School, a preschool program that runs 4 mornings a week (9am to 1pm) .
  • Licensing status.  Most forest schools are not licensed by the state (unlike traditional daycares and preschools). Ilana Israel,co-owner and co-founder of Parks Plus Creation, tells us that much of the state licensing framework is designed for brick and mortar schools and doesn’t make sense when applied to forest schools. However, a group of forest schools in CA, including Parks Plus Creation, are in discussions with the state agency regarding licensing. While being licensed does not equate to quality, it does mean that the school meets minimum health and safety standards, including that all employees have had back-ground checks and child-to-teacher ratios meet guidelines.

How are forest schools similar to traditional preschools?

  • They focus on social-emotional development. While children do learn certain out-door skills, such as how to find shelter in inclement weather, being in nature is a vehicle for learning other important skills critical to a child’s development. Nature Nurture founder Linda Constant tells us, “Our programs are not so much about learning about nature, but rather focus on character education – mindful character education.” Constant describes how, when one boy grabbed an interesting rock from another, it created an opportunity for her group to talk about sharing and respect.
  • They employ some of the same philosophies as traditional schools. Forest schools generally follow some form of a play-based, child-directed philosophy. There is plenty of dramatic play (such as pretending that piles of logs are big ships), games, and group play. Also, children take on projects. For example, Parks Plus Creation was founded by two teachers who came from a Reggio Emilia background, so projects and teamwork are featured strongly in their school.
  • Children acquire kindergarten-readiness skills. Forest schools can teach many of the same kindergarten skills as a traditional school. For example Parks Plus Creation helps children develop attention and focus via “bird sits” where students and teachers sit together and quietly observe the environment and then reflect on what they experienced. A nature journal helps students to practice their writing, and fine motor skills are developed in activities such as making watercolor painting of the scenery.

What type of child would enjoy attending a forest school?

Linda Constant tells us that she can’t think of a type of child that wouldn’t benefit from attending Nature Nurture, but it’s particularly great for children with lots of energy and also for children who would otherwise not get a lot of outdoor time. Ilana Israel adds that she has seen some children who are shy in a traditional preschool environment become more confident in an outdoor environment and even take on leadership roles among their peers.

Since forest schools are not yet very common in the Bay Area, parents will likely have to travel out of their immediate neighborhoods to find one, and they rarely cover full-time work hours. Only families that have flexible schedules or additional resources (such as a nanny, sitter, or other family member) to help with pickup and dropoff will be able to utilize these schools.

What do parents have to know?

  • Pickup and dropoff locations can vary. Depending on the day’s activities and the weather, the daily meeting point can vary and requires a bit more coordination between teachers and parents than would at a traditional preschool.
  • Waterproof gear is key. Parks Plus Creation tells us that rainy days are some of the most fun days for children, when banana slugs come out and puddles for jumping in are everywhere. Preparing for any kind of weather, especially being appropriately dressed in waterproof clothing, is something that parents and kids quickly learn!

Additional forest preschools in the Bay Area:

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