Hana Iqbal drops her toddler off at nursery each day dressed in a raincoat, no matter what the forecast. Iqbal’s daughter goes to a forest school, where kids spend about half or more of their day outside, learning about the natural world. “Last week, my two-year-old was hammering nails into a piece of wood, wearing goggles and gloves,” she says.
Forest schools, also called nature pre-schools, outdoor pre-schools, and forest kindergartens, complement traditional education with a focus on environmental literacy. They vary in their cost, curriculum, and size, but generally mean that children spend a significant part of their classes outdoors and complete activities that help them learn about the nature around them.
Iqbal describes herself not just as a forest schools convert, but an evangelist. “As a family doctor, I see so much heartbreaking mental health difficulty in young people every working day,” she wrote in a message to Popular Science. “I genuinely believe and hope that these streams of education—which allow children to develop mindfulness, body awareness, and relationship with nature, each other, and oneself—may be a little bit of an antidote to the challenges of modern life.”
She sends her daughter to a forest school in England, where the movement has flourished in recent years. In 2017, a shortlist of the best nurseries in the United Kingdom were all outdoor-focused. The schools are also common in Scandinavia, where the idea originated. Now, the trend is catching steam in the US as well.
Forest schools have been around in the states since the 1960s, but have seen consistent growth since the 2010s, and a surge since the pandemic. Natural Start Alliance, which is a professional group for educators involved in environmental education, for newborns up to 8-year-olds, reports that it’s seen a big increase in interest in the past decade. In 2017, the organization logged about 275 nature preschools schools across the US; by 2022, that number had risen to more than 800 forest schools.
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Emily Van Laan, a communications specialist for Natural Start Alliance, attributes this to a few changes: increased conversation about the importance of early childhood development, the rise of play-based learning, concern over time spent on screens, and the spread of COVID-19 itself. She says that forest schools are scattered throughout the country, but have particularly high concentrations in California, Washington, and Minnesota.
“Sometimes people think about this approach to education as only being in places where the weather is always nice or always mild,” Van Laan says. “And that is definitely not the case. We see nature pre-schools in almost every state, including Alaska and Hawai’i, and definitely in every region of the US.”
Each school’s approach to outdoor learning will differ depending on the region. A program in Texas would think of exercises that keep kids cool during warmer months, or help them navigate snakes in the area. One in Minnesota would consider how children can stay warm and active when the temperature plunges, or teach them to forage for plants and fungi.
“Every program will have guidance that is clearly communicated with parents in terms of the temperature barrier,” Van Laan says. For example, the forest school will tell parents how long children will spend outside in a certain temperature before going inside to take a break. Educators are also trained in risk assessment, like knowing the signs of when a child becomes too hot or cold.“The importance of having the right gear is a huge part of nature preschool,” Van Laan adds. “So they often do parent education on layering and a lot of programs often provide gear to the students that are enrolled.”
Most programs are tuition-based and can be expensive, Van Laan says. But some offer a sliding scale or scholarships. One program in Wisconsin is free thanks to a partnership between a school district, nature center, and the YMCA. In Minnesota, 13 nature preschools are partially covered through public funding.
Forest schools teach children how to be environmental stewards, something that is especially important as the world grapples with a changing climate. But there’s no research-based consensus on how to teach young children about climate change right now, Van Laan notes. (Even for older students, New Jersey is the only state with a mandated K-12 curriculum on climate change.) Van Laan says to start, educators should focus on teaching kids to connect with nature. “Certainly we’re not laying the responsibility of saving the planet on their tiny shoulders,” she says.
At the same time, some forest schools have come face to face with the impacts of climate change. “The daily reality and urgency of climate change has increased,” she says. “And while we don’t want to introduce young children to ideas that frighten them, we also want to recognize their capacity for understanding. There are outdoor programs in California, for example, that have to close because of wildfires … Children are aware of these things. There’s no way to shield them from this knowledge, because they’re seeing it, they’re experiencing it.”
Iqbal says she’s happy her daughter has the unique opportunity to connect with nature daily—something she feels is made even more important with climate change. “My God, will the next generation need to know this and to look after this, after everything our generation and the generations before have created for them.”
Correction (April 24, 2023): The article previous said that Minnesota has 12 school districts with publicly funded nature preschools. The correct number is 13 nature preschools in total.