Cork Board
Category: Provider Voices

Philosophy Spotlight: Forest Schools & Nature-Based Programs

Early Childhood Education can have a lot of buzzwords and misunderstandings. This “Philosophy Spotlight” series intends to introduce you to the origins of a number of currently used philosophies directly from the writings of their founders and accomplished practitioners, as well as modern practices and ideas associated with these philosophies. Note that many of the philosophies and philosophers we reference in the US are Euro-centric in origin. I will do my best to integrate philosophies of development and learning from a more diverse body of knowledge, for the benefit of all children and providers. You’ll notice a significant amount of overlap between philosophies, as well as some stark differences. Use these articles to consider your own approach to early education, and maybe refine how you see you work and design your program. These are intended to be broad overviews; please see the references if you’d like to learn more about each one! 

Modern Regulating Bodies/Standards: 

In the UK, there is the Forest School Association that accredits Forest Schools/Nature Based Programs

Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools offers teacher certifications.

There is no requirement to be affiliated with these or other regulating bodies to call a program a Forest or Nature School.

Origins, Theories and Theorists:

Forest schools have existed around the world since the early 1920s, with Sweden and Denmark beginning the practice as a type of informal early childhood education. It has expanded substantially in recent years, notably since 2012 and another expansion during and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in Western Europe, Eastern Asia, and the United States.

From UK Forest School:

  1. Forest school is a long-term process of frequent and regular sessions in a woodland or natural environment, rather than a one-off visit. Planning, adaptation, observations and reviewing are integral elements of Forest School.
  2. Forest School takes place in a woodland or natural wooded environment to support the development of a relationship between the learner and the natural world.
  3. Forest School aims to promote the holistic development of all those involved, fostering resilient, confident, independent and creative learners.
  4. Forest School offers learners the opportunity to take supported risks appropriate to the environment and to themselves.
  5. Forest School is run by qualified Forest School practitioners who continuously maintain and develop their professional practice.
  6. Forest School uses a range of learner-centered processes to create a community for development and learning.


Providers with outdoor/nature based programs value being outdoors in almost all weather.

Leaving nature as it is– stewardship of nature.

Following the seasons; helping children observe the way the world changes over time and in predictable ways.

Some nature programs teach children from a young age how to use a campfire to cook or use other tools to interact with the outdoors. A degree of risky play is often a draw of Forest Schools or Nature Based Programs, whether that’s allowing children to climb trees or rocks, or carry and play with fallen sticks.

A Forest School is distinct from other outdoor play due primarily to time spent outdoors, in amount each day as well as the length of time in months or years in one place. There is also great freedom of time and flexibility of schedule, rather than preplanned and limited time to be outdoors.

What You Might Observe in a Forest School:

Children outside in all weather conditions.

Children out of view of supervising adults.

Adults setting children’s boundaries at the beginning of each session, reminding them how far and in what areas they can explore, what the signal is to return, and where to come back together at that signal.

Risky play, including children using tools.

Few to no traditional toys or play materials.

Influence on Modern ECE Programs at Large: 

The Forest School movement has drawn attention to the benefits of time in nature for children and people of all ages, in physical health, mental health, and cognition.

Questions for Your Reflection:

How do I use my outdoor space and time?

What opportunities do children in my program have to notice daily, weekly, and seasonal changes?

What natural resources are available to me and the children in my care?

References and further reading:

Guide to the Growing World of Nature-Based Learning – Childhood By Nature

Full principles and criteria for good practice | Forest School Association

The difference between Outdoor Play and Forest School  | Forest School Association

Do kids learn better in forest schools? (

“Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv


Was this content helpful?