What is a Forest School?

The first forest school was opened in Denmark during the 1950s. In the years since, their popularity has grown substantially, including in the UK where there are now more than 130.

Forest schools made their way to Canada in 2007, when Carp Ridge Preschool opened just outside of Ottawa. In 2012, Forest School Canada, an educational initiative of the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, began formally training and certifying educators across the country.

Wildflowers Forest School was founded in 2012 by Brandy Schell and is located in Waterloo’s Bechtel Park. It is one of several forest schools in the KW region supplementing traditional education.

Wildflowers offers immersive half and full-day programs, helping students between the ages of three and 12 build resilience, refine problem-solving skills, improve sensory development and test boundaries through the exploration of nature.

Children across North America are increasingly spending time indoors and in front of screens. According to the Child and Natural Alliance of Canada and the National Survey of Children’s Health, this is leading to increased health and developmental concerns.

Like most forest schools, Wildflowers teaches cross-curriculum.  The school integrates science, mathematics, language, communication and physical activity into the every day, using the forest as the classroom.

Sarah Michelle is a former elementary and Montessori school teacher. Today, she teaches at Wildflowers and she sees the benefits every day. “[The freedom of] being outside gives children the opportunity to learn and understand communication, self-regulation and the laws of nature. Seeing it with their own eyes is powerful – the change of all four seasons and how they connect to that within themselves,” she said.

“Traditional learning tends to be top-down,” said Sarah Michelle. The current best practice for learning at traditional schools is a highly-regimented curriculum with little time for exploration. By contrast, almost all learning that occurs in forest schools is student-led. Teachers will set the tone or theme for each class, but the students’ interests shape what the class will focus on for the day.

Teachers at Wildflowers focus on leveraging students’ curiosity to inform lessons. According to The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, student-led projects dramatically increase student engagement and learning outcomes.

“Asking, where does it come from? Who relies on it? What would happen if it wasn’t here? [Are important questions]” Michelle said. These questions not only drive student learning but increase their connection to the environment around them.

Michelle Purchase, a professor at the University of Guelph has been sending her daughter, now eight, to Wildflowers for the past five years — her nephew also recently started attending. She believed her kids weren’t getting everything they needed from traditional education and decided to give Wildflowers a try.

“My concern was that they don’t really get very much of an outdoor education and appreciation,” she said. That’s where Wildflowers helped out. “Connection with nature is the best way to develop a sense of stewardship and relationship with the environment.”

According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, there is a growing group of parents who feel traditional school systems are lacking.

The majority of students attending Wildflowers are enrolled in traditional schools four days a week. Both Brandy and Michelle Purchase believe that parents are frustrated with the lack of hands-on activities children undertake in traditional school systems — forest schools offer an alternative and a supplemental education.

Forest schools give children permission to explore, to get dirty, to take (moderate) risks. They equip students with the capacity and tools needed to be resilient and deal with stress later in life.

As Brandy Schell said, “I know one parent who was really worried about [the kids] being outside in the snow during winter. Over time she was so impressed with how her children were able to manage all those elements and build themselves up — just their confidence in themselves and seeing the changes.”

For some parents in Canada, forest schools may be too new to justify missing a day of school, but there is growing research showing the importance of outdoor exploration and learning outcomes — this includes improving sensory development and increasing adaptability. 

According to the CBC, as forest schools continue to grow in popularity across Canada, traditional schools may be advised to adopt some of their best practices.