Why I send my kid outside to a kindergarten in the forest

Guest post by Jas Darland
This is what our child's kindergarten classroom looks like.
This is what our child’s kindergarten classroom looks like.

When we planned the forest kindergarten it was spring. The woods were still sparse from the winter, but green was showing everywhere — that certain shade of green that summons up something deep within us and makes us want to breathe more deeply, walk more slowly.

When we opened the forest kindergarten it was autumn. The woods were bursting with blackberries and the water in the stream was warm. The children played on the rocks and in the shallow water, making forts out of kudzu vines. The teachers sat in the sand and watched them play, full of joy and wonder at the natural ability of children to find purposeful work in nature.

And now it is winter. Even in Georgia, this means cold days and icy rain. The beavers have retreated to their lodge for the rest of the season, and our favorite game of looking for freshly gnawed stumps has petered out. The children waddle into the woods in layers of warm and waterproof clothes, awkward and round. The teachers’ hats are pulled down over their ears and when they stomp their feet and clap their hands along with the songs and poems at morning circle time, they do so with extra motivation. Geese arrive in honking masses, descending onto the pond and leaving again. Even they look cold.

This is the hardest time of year to send our children outside for the day, and the most important. We have developed what Richard Louv calls an “indoor culture,” in which children are raised to prefer sedentary indoor activities.

Even when our children do spend time outside, it’s usually on a manicured sports field where their actions are directed by adults. And when it rains? Or it’s hot? Or cold? Or windy? We cancel outdoor activities and come inside.

The message our children are getting is crystal clear: nature is not to be trusted. It’s all well and good on mellow, sunny days, but if there’s any risk of discomfort, we’re better off indoors.

Giving our children the opportunity to fall in love with nature may be the most important thing we can do for their own long-term health as well as for the health of our planet.

The consequences are myriad, from bad health, poor eyesight, and sensory processing disorders, to the reality that we are raising a generation who may be unable to value nature and unwilling to protect it. Giving our children the opportunity to fall in love with nature may be the most important thing we can do for their own long-term health as well as for the health of our planet.

So here in the forest kindergarten, our pride and determination are greatest in these winter months. The wind drops as the children enter the forest, and it’s suddenly very quiet. It takes a minute for the other sounds to register — the chirping of the chickadees, the melancholy burble of the stream, the rustling of dry leaves, as fourteen pairs of warm rubber boots tramp along the path. Other sounds will surface soon — the crackle of a warming fire in the fire pit, the hollow thwack of sticks on sticks as forts are built and sword battles fought, the comfortable murmur of children at play, and the occasional delighted shrieks of cold mud in between adventurous toes.

This is winter in the forest kindergarten, and although they don’t know it now, our children will look back on this season as the time they understood that a connection with nature and the natural science of the woods is dependent on nothing more than their willingness to show up.

Comments on Why I send my kid outside to a kindergarten in the forest

  1. This is a really cool concept, though I’m curious how you handle kids who don’t enjoy it. Is there an attitude of “No, really, this is fun. Enjoy it!” or are kids who don’t want to be there allowed to leave?

    • Hi Cassie,
      We’ve only had one child who really didn’t enjoy it. Our teachers and his parents worked together for a few weeks to try new approaches to help him become more comfortable, but in the end they found a different kindergarten that was a better fit for him. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a really valuable and beautiful option for many kids.

  2. Good for you! I live in Norway, where the kindergartens are out all the time, regardless of the weather ( rain, bring it on! Minus 15 degrees, bring it on!) so I am glad when someone from another culture sees the benefits of this.

    When you say ” forest kindergarten” ; are the kids outside all the time? ( we also have this in norway, where there is abselutely no place to go inside,not even a toilet) or do they have playtime outside?

    • Hi Fern,
      For us, “forest kindergarten” means that there’s a strong, positive focus on embracing Mother Nature in all her moods and seasons, and that the bulk of the day is spent outside. We do have a lovely Waldorf-inspired inside space as well, and the children come inside at lunch for pottying, hand-washing, and story time before heading back outside.
      My grandfather is Norwegian, and I admire their forest schools tremendously, but our model is a little more mellow!

  3. I had never heard of this until my cousin in England enrolled her son in a forest elementary school. They have indoor class time everyday and outdoor class time everyday (only the most extreme weather would cancel outdoor class). I loved the idea but couldn’t find anything similar here in DC. Luckily, my kids preschool teacher was a believer of this philosophy. We are in a typical American public school so she couldn’t do outside class every day but she did it very very often. Walking trips to collect leaves, walks through the neighborhood to look for colors or shapes, weekly scheduled community garden time. And unless the weather was truly dangerous (lightening, etc) she never canceled. Such an amazing learning experience for little ones.

  4. I really love this concept! But the “why” I get, the “why” part is easy. I would send my kids to an outdoor kindergarten in a heartbeat. While I do enjoy a little poetic musing, I’m already in with both feet on this one. Can we talk about the “how”?

    I would love to see a follow-up article on how they are working with the state to get something like this together and what it all entails. What kind of curriculum is involved? Is it just a horde of children running amok in the woods for a year? Are they taught only skills of a nature base or do they also incorporate a bit of traditional school-prep? Being that it is in the U.S. I can only imagine the liability issues on startup and the amount of paperwork for both teachers and parents.

    • In some states kindergarten is not mandatory, so at least in those states regulations wouldn’t be a big deal. I’m assuming it could also be set up as a homeschool co-op where kindergarten is mandatory. As far as insurance, it seems to be comparable to many day camps (though certainly legal waivers are important!)

      • When setting up a pre-school or kindy in most states, you will need to follow a lot of strict rules because you will be providing food to children and will need a commerical kitchen or certain licensing to do so. In MO (where I live) I knew a group of families who started a nursery school for that very reason. They can only operate a certain number of hours and serve only “light snacks” which are provided by the families in the co op who have kids there.

        Something like this could get really onerous really fast in Missouri, TBH. A lot of states have similar rules.

    • Hi Sam,
      I would love to share a more-detailed piece on our structure, rhythm, and pedagogical goals! Helping other programs get going is very important to me. The short version is that we are organized as a homeschool enrichment program, we have a state licensing exemption because we’re only 2 days/week, and liability insurance is a major budget item for us!

      • Hi! This is fascinating and enjoyable, and I’d love to send my kid to something like your program (or attend myself!).

        Here’s the thing, though: I need full-time childcare, and so many “alternative” daycares (my kid is 18 months) are part-time. So do the kids who go to your kindergarten go to other programs the rest of the time? Or are they all homeschooled?

        Just curious. And a little frustrated that none of the cool programs are accessible for my daughter, if I’m being honest! Sorry for making you the spokesperson/apologist for an entire industry. (=

      • I am working on a daycare exemption as well and have recently obtained nonprofit status to begin our forest kindergarten in Newtown, CT. After the tragedy that struck our community my husband encouraged me to use my education as a forest kindergarten educator and bring the movement to the States, instead of moving to our family property in Ontario where it is welcomed. I am having a very hard time finding insurance to cover our programs and an even harder time introducing this concept to our frightened community. I would love any and all advice to make our forest kindergarten full of happy, healthy and curious faces!

  5. Have you seen or heard of a documentary called The Land? It’s really amazing, and speaks to this issue. It can be a little tough to watch because the kids are way less supervised than we are typically comfortable with, but it’s amazing to see their imagination and creativity come alive in that environment. http://playfreemovie.com/trailer/

  6. I had a comment a bit further up, but have to comment again because I am a bit confused. I do not mean these questions as critique, I am genuinely puzzled.

    I am, as said, from Norway, where being outdoors is a part of our culture. When I think about ” kindergarten in a forest” I think about some of our kindergartens where they are outside abselutely all day, they have NO inside facility, no toilets, nothing exept a part of the forest.

    To be outside in a forest/mountain/nature at playtime is just normal kindergarten, even the babies crawl around in the leaves and rocks.

    So, how is your kindergartens? Are the kids not outside? Why is being ouside difficult because of paperwork/ what paperwork?

    • DISCLAIMER: The following is based on my own memory as a kindergartener over 20 years ago in the United States, and is likely not representative of all kindergartens in the United States today. Having said all of this, I do hope my comments help to clarify at least one of your questions.

      In the United States, kindergarten is typically the first year of the school curriculum. Though I suppose every school has its variants on how structured the day may be and how much time children spend outside, from what I remember, the majority of the time (half-day kindergarten when I was a child, so roughly 4 hours) was spent indoors in a classroom, with perhaps two ~30 minute periods of outdoor play on a playground. Poor weather (anywhere under freezing, or if it was pouring down rain) meant that we had “indoor recess.”

      As it was, my playground was AT my school, so it would have been a very short walk to the toilets inside of the school. Likely our school would have been horrified at the thought that any of its pupils might need to relieve themselves outdoors/without toilet facilities.

      I don’t know what kind of regulations might exist regarding indoor teaching facilities or toilets for a space designated as a “school,” but I would imagine that they’re fairly strict, particularly for public schools, which receive federal funding. Not sure if this is true about every nation, but it seems that in the US, we have paperwork to sign off for everything. (While I do believe in having safety regulations, I could go on about the US being a sue-happy culture, but that’s a whole other rant.)

      • I was also in Kindergarten about 20 years ago in the US. I went to all-day Kindergarten (which is really only about 6-7 hours) and we had 45 minutes of recess followed by nap time, which was about 45 minutes. When the weather was bad, we’d have indoor recess which always entailed watching a movie. Fortunately, my school abutted to woods, so many of us would go play outdoors in the dirt and leaves anyway. It was fun, building forts out of sticks and so on. When there was snow, (and there was a lot more of it in the 90s), recess was AWESOME. But it was still regulated and for only a little bit out of the day. We had field trips, where we would sometimes go out in the woods all day on a hike, but they would require parental release forms to be signed ahead of time. That was the case then, and is still the case now.

        But that was 20 years ago, so I would be shocked if kids were still even allowed that kind of freedom. Our parenting/schooling culture has shifted to become much more regulated to ensure safety, and I think the defining moment in that change was the Columbine incident in 1999. Schools don’t let kids walk far or go astray into the woods. Kids don’t walk to school anymore, nor do they walk to their friends’ houses. Nowadays you will see school busses stopping at one house, driving another 2 houses down, and stopping again to let a kid out. The parents, too, will be waiting at the bus stops with them. Some even see their children onto the bus. Kids as young as 5 have cell phones so their parents can keep track of their whereabouts. There is a lot more fear in the climate for schoolchildren now than there was in the 1990s. Thus, there are many more regulations and paperwork to fill out. Don’t even get me started on what children are/aren’t allowed to eat at school.

    • My daughter is currently in kindergarten at a Montessori school, so while my own experience with public kindergarten was also quite some time ago (and was also only half-day, from 12-3:30 or so, I believe) I think Elizabeth’s answer is pretty spot-on. My daughter and her class do spend time outside in lots of different weather (they don’t really have a playground–just a big open natural space to charge around in, since the school is just on the edge of town–and she takes boots and snowpants or a raincoat to school most days, and during warm months usually comes home in her extra outfit because she fell in the creek) but quite a bit of what they do is inside–looking at books, sewing (with real needles and fabric), preparing their own snacks, learning songs in different languages, math and counting activities, that kind of thing. It’s definitely treated as preparation for the next level of their education, though it’s very self-directed. When she was in PreK in a different state, the school was downtown and there was no green space at all–they were next to the bus station, though, and used to ride the bus around town and explore their local geography. But like I said, my kindergarten experience is pretty limited.

    • Side note: I actually had a similar question (but in reverse) as you did when I read your question–what do kids do in all-day outdoor kindergarten that they wouldn’t do in their own backyard? How are the logistics of not having toilets handled (like how backpackers carry shovels to bury stuff to keep things sanitary, or my MIL rotates where her horses pasture to keep their immediate area from getting gross, or teaching kids that age that it’s not actually appropriate to just go wherever you want)? Not that my kids haven’t gone to the bathroom in the woods ever, of course! And I’m sorry for fixating on that particular detail–it’s just that having that be the everyday course for an entire group of kids, as opposed to a once-in-a-while thing, is very strange to me.

      • Hi Erin,
        I don’t know how other programs handle it, but we have indoor toilets just a few minutes’ walk away from our forest classroom. There are enough cultural and logistical hurdles in setting up something like this without adding in the issues you mention!

    • Kindergarten in the US is hard work. In our community, the kids get typically 20-30 minutes of the day (from about 8am-2pm) outside recess. Inside they are working on reading, writing, math skills, and various centers they rotate that are educational and do incorporate some play, but mostly everything is doing school work. The school work is challenging. They rotate specials, being PE, Art, Music each day is one of these during the day. They have very little unstructured time and very little outside time.

      • I’d be interested in hearing the specifics of how you put yours together even though regulations vary so much. I’m sure at least some parts will be applicable! Especially if you include stuff like how you found out about the regulations and what other research you did.

  7. “The consequences are myriad, from bad health, poor eyesight, and sensory processing disorders”

    I would love to see any articles or resources on linking being outside to sensory processing! There’s already a fair amount of evidence about kids being indoors all the time and allergies, but as somebody with sensory processing stuff I hadn’t heard about that research.

  8. OK, I’m taking my kindergartner out for a bike ride now. A forest kindergarten won’t work for my family’s life (we live half a block from our school and I will not drive) but I can do my best to get outside. Thanks for the new years day reminder of what’s important- to be outside.

  9. We have a school in Australia started by a well known author John Marsden that is big on outdoors and arts learning and less supervision. It’s called Candlebark (www.candlebark.info) is just pre-primary to year 7 which is the end of primary school here, ages 4-13 I think. It’s in a rural are. Their motto is “take care, take risks”.

    We also have some montessori, steiner/waldorf, and reggio emilia schools. I have a close friend who teaches as Bold Park Community School, which is none of the above types of schools but has aspects of them such as no uniforms and no competitive sports, and one day a week is entirely outdoors except in extreme weather. They have a food garden, older kids teach younger ones how to build forts, they make experimental musical equipment and I so want to send my potential children there. Alas it is expensive and may not be a possibility.

    I love the sound of the forest schools in Norway. Here in Australia there just isn’t a lot of natural bushland left close by most suburbia, and it would be deemed as unsafe (snakes and heat stroke) in summer I think. In my city anyway, which is all built on swamp. Not that poisonous snakes aren’t educational.

    • Hi Janey,
      I’m a huge fan of John Marsden!
      It’s really a shame that cost becomes such a huge factor for alternative education program. It’s a social injustice and it goes against what so many of us are trying to accomplish. I hope that we’ll be able to revolutionize school funding in our communities in order to help families make the right choice for their kids without going broke in the process!

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