I was never one to love the four walls of a classroom. The transition from making mud pies in my grandparent’s backyard to sitting at a desk and learning how to write the alphabet wasn’t an easy one. I remember the freedom of being outside and creating a whole world just from one idea. It rained the night before and mud stuck to the bottom of my sandals. I felt the mud between my fingers and rolled it into a ball. I added leaves, sticks, and flowers to create something entirely different from how I found it. Soon enough, I had an outdoor kitchen and was serving the best mud pies in town. Well, at least that’s what my grandma told me. Once I started school, there wasn’t much time for mud pie making. I had to learn to sit still and follow someone else’s rules of learning. Honestly, the lack of freedom and confinement killed my imagination. It wasn’t until I returned to early childhood education as an adult that I started to find it again. My idea of bringing the classroom outside has led to the creation of my own Forest School.

According to the Forest School Association, “Forest School is a child-centered inspirational learning process that offers opportunities for holistic growth through regular sessions. It is a long-term program that supports play, exploration and supported risk taking. It develops confidence and self-esteem through learner inspired, hands-on experience in a natural setting.” My mud pie making had finally come full circle. When I first opened Kids at Play, I created an outdoor classroom with a fully stocked mud kitchen so that mud pie making would always be a part of the curriculum.

As I observed the students in their outdoor classroom, I was able to see the benefits of learning outdoors. There were no single purpose toys, desks or chairs, whiteboards, or worksheets. Instead, there was mud, pots and pans, and trees to climb on. With less, there was more. I saw each child’s eyes open with endless possibilities. They weren’t outside their school; they were on an island learning how to build a fort. They were creating a forest of fairy houses. They were looking for bugs and small critters. After watching their imaginations grow, I decided it was time to take them to an even less structured area. So, I became a recognized Forest School provider and started planning excursions. With limited lessons plans, I started taking my classes to wooded areas and near water. Then I would sit and watch as the magic unfolded. The students had a sense of freedom and risk. They knew their own internal boundaries and limits. There is natural risk of getting lost but there are boundaries in place. They had the freedom to sit, climb, run, without permission. In an unstructured atmosphere, this allowed their imagination to be authentic.

Then I started noticing behaviors. There was no fighting over toys or playground equipment. There was a genuine respect for each other and each space. No one was asserting dominance. They were learning how to collaborate in this new environment but also had the freedom to go in their own direction. We didn’t bring toys or single purpose objects. Instead, they looked for crabs. They congregated in small groups and looked through the dirt for small treasures. They ran and climbed. They understood the risks of being outside in the elements and assessed on their own. They were learning. And all it took was stepping outside of the four walls of a classroom.

In an article by the Children Nature Network, “research suggests that the benefits from Forest School participation include increase in motivation, concentration, confidence, knowledge of natural environment, and awareness of others.” A study was conducted on the overall experience of Forest School including the benefits on early childhood education. The data that was found suggests that participating in Forest School “fostered a greater awareness of the play affordances offered in a natural environment, with activities being replicated outside of the school sessions; gave the children opportunities to challenge their own concerns about and develop a greater sense of comfort and safety with nature play; develop their knowledge and understanding of the environment, such as learning the names and habitats of local wildlife; helped nurture children’s biophilia by encouraging them to ‘emotionally connect with and develop an appreciation of the natural world.’

Our Fall Forest School program will be starting in August, and I couldn’t be more excited. We have weekly excursions planned so that each student gets the opportunity to explore outside of our school. Students will document their experience in journals and reflect on what they’ve learned. We will be prepared to take the classroom outside during all weather conditions, except when unsafe. Our Forest School goes beyond the fence with ages 5-7. Immersing children in nature creates conditions where they feel confident to take cognitive, physical, and emotional risks as they mature across all developmental domains.

I am so grateful that I can bring back the basics of childhood. Learning doesn’t always have to take place in a classroom. Children aren’t always meant to sit still. So come wander with me. Let’s reconnect with our imagination that we were told to hide away and give our children the opportunity to create worlds that we never had the chance to. What are you waiting for? The forest is calling.