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Forest School Origins

The History of Forest School Education


The origin of forest schools have deep roots in Europe and Scandinavia, when the first kindergartens were established in the 1800s. The original kindergartens were preschool aged, in gardens or outdoors, and play-based. In the 1900s, Germany’s Waldorf-Steiner methodology promoted inquiry and play based education guided by teachers as facilitators . The outdoor school movement took hold in Germany in the 1950s/1960s where they established “Waldkindergarten” classes, which translates to “Forest Kindergarten”. This model was adopted by Denmark and Sweden as well, which aligned with their cultural love of the outdoors. From there, forest schools expanded quickly across the United Kingdom in the 1990s and then in the 2000s in the United States. The United States now has over 100 independent Forest Schools across the nation, including ours, right here in North County San Diego!

Richard Louv, a scholar, author and passionate advocate for outdoor education, is largely credited with popularizing the Forest School movement here in the states. His 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods,” posits that children should spend as much time as possible in the outdoors to avoid what he coined as “nature deficit”.

“This book explores the increasing divide between the young and the natural world, and the environmental, social, psychological, and spiritual implications of that change. It also describes the accumulating research that reveals the necessity of contact with nature for healthy child—and adult—development.”

While it seems that outdoor education has just started catching on and becoming a ‘trend’ in the U.S., the Native School has always felt passionately about the Forest School model. Central to our curriculum is the belief that children are capable and inquisitive learners. This aligns with many other educational pedagogy including Montessori, Waldorf and Reggio Emilia, with the the latter being another approach that is woven into our program. At The Native School, we’re proud to offer thoughtful, quality, outdoor education in North County San Diego and to create community based around a shared love of nature.

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‘Improved cognitive functioning, Louv added, has been associated with nature-based learning for years. The research strongly suggests that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves; reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, calm children, and help them focus,” Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods and co-founder of the Children and Nature Network, said in an email. “There are some indications that natural play spaces can reduce bullying. It can also be a buffer to child obesity and overweight, and offers other psychological and physical health benefits.” ‘


‘Today’s children and families often have limited opportunities to connect with the natural environment. Richard Louv called this phenomenon, ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book, The Last Child in the Woods, and opened the nation’s eyes to the developmental effects that nature has on our children. Louv documented how modern family life has changed dramatically in the last two decades. Children spend more time viewing television and playing video games on computers than they do being physically active outside. In the past decade, the benefits of connecting to nature have been well documented in numerous scientific research studies and publications. Collectively, this body of research shows that children’s social, psychological, academic and physical health is positively impacted when they have daily contact with nature.’

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In a normal, healthy person, cortisol levels spike significantly upon waking up in the morning, then drop until about midday and plateau through the afternoon. At about four or five p.m., cortisol levels drop again until you go to bed. This study measured cortisol in students’ saliva three times a day. The intervention group of 37 students spent one day each week learning in a nearby forest and the rest of their time in school as usual. A control group of 11 studied indoors only. The outdoor group showed a normal, healthy pattern in their cortisol levels, but the children who stayed indoors did not show the expected drop in cortisol in the afternoon. “They keep the [higher] stress level during the whole day,” Dettweiler says, “which one could argue is not the best thing to do to a child.”


Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells 2000) supporting self-directed learning and has the capacity to improve academic performance. Studies in the US show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education support significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and maths. Students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27% (American Institutes for Research 2005). Studies of children in schoolyards/playgrounds found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas. They also played more cooperatively (Dyment & Bell 2008). Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual development (Kellert 2005). According to the studies by Kellert (2005), nature is important to children’s development intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically. 

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