The Benefits and Workings of Wood Schools

Wood schools, also known as forest schools or nature schools, are a unique and enriching educational approach that utilizes outdoor spaces and natural materials for children’s learning and development. This article will provide an in-depth look at wood schools, including their history, principles, benefits, daily operations, and what sets them apart from traditional schooling.

A Brief History of Wood Schools

The forest school movement originated in Scandinavia in the 1950s as a way to provide young children with regular access to nature and the outdoors. The model spread across Europe and eventually made its way to the United States and other parts of the world.

Wood schools take inspiration from the philosophies of Fredrich Froebel, the founder of the kindergarten movement, and Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf education system. Both emphasized the importance of nature-based, hands-on learning.

Over the past few decades, a growing body of research has demonstrated the benefits of nature-based education and free play for children’s development, health, and wellbeing. This has led to a surge of interest in implementing the wood school model in early childhood programs and elementary schools worldwide.

Core Principles and Practices

Wood schools adhere to a student-centered educational philosophy with the following key principles:

  • Regular access to nature and the outdoors
  • Child-directed play and exploration
  • Hands-on, experiential learning
  • Development of the whole child
  • Risk-taking within safe boundaries
  • Building confidence and self-esteem

Wood schools operate primarily outdoors, utilizing natural spaces like forests, gardens, parks, creeks, and shorelines as the classroom. Students spend the majority of each day learning and playing outdoors, in all weather conditions. Natural materials like sticks, rocks, pinecones, leaves, and mud are used for hands-on activities, creative building projects, and imaginative play.

There are no formal desks or classrooms. Students may gather on tree stumps or fallen logs for group discussions or lessons. Open-ended play is valued over academics and testing. Teachers take on the role of facilitators, guiding learning through inquiry-based discussions and providing tools for exploration rather than direct instruction.

A typical wood school day is balanced between child-led discovery and play, teacher-facilitated activities, snack and meal times, and group meetings or discussions. Risk-taking is encouraged within safe parameters, and teachers allow students to experience challenges like climbing trees or using real tools for projects. This builds confidence, resilience, and practical skills.

The Benefits for Children

Decades of research support the benefits of spending regular time in nature, particularly for early childhood development. Here are some of the evidence-based advantages wood schools provide:

Improved Physical Health

Spending time outdoors in natural light promotes vitamin D absorption, strengthens the immune system, and increases physical activity. Wood schools help decrease obesity and negate some of the adverse effects of indoor lifestyles.

Social and Emotional Growth

The child-led structure teaches independence, creativity, problem solving, empathy, and teamwork. With more freedom outdoors, children become more self-assured and learn to understand their feelings.

Cognitive Development

Nature provides endless opportunities for hands-on, experiential learning that engages all the senses. Interacting with nature nurtures curiosity, motivation to learn, and a range of academic skills.

Concentration and Behavior

Studies consistently show that exposure to nature improves children’s focus and self-discipline. The outdoors provides a calming, regulating influence that reduces stress and hyperactivity.

Environmental Awareness

By fostering regular interaction with the natural world from a young age, wood schools help children develop environmental appreciation and stewardship. Sustainability is modeled through daily practices.

Resilience and Risk-Taking

With supportive guidance, wood schools allow appropriate levels of risk that help children learn how to assess hazards and build resilience by overcoming challenges. This promotes independence and confidence.

Community Cooperation

The multi-age structure of most wood schools encourages older children to take on leadership roles and nurture younger students. Cooperative play builds strong social skills.

For families, wood schools also provide welcome opportunities for more outdoor family time and active engagement in children’s educational experiences. The benefits reach across generations.

Elements of a Typical Wood School Day

While every wood school is unique, a typical day has a natural rhythm and includes certain consistent components:

Arrival Time

Students are greeted outdoors and have open play time to ease the transition from home to school. Family members are welcome to stay and assist or observe.

Morning Circle

The group gathers for songs, team-building games, announcements, and an overview of the day’s activities. Students share news or objects brought from home.

Free Play and Exploration

Children disperse to play, create, build, or explore on their own or in small groups. They may gather leaves or sticks for projects or observe wildlife.

Snack Time

Students wash hands and have a family-style snack outdoors. This provides a needed break and fuels the body for more activities.

Facilitated Activities

Teachers guide experiences like crafts, nature journaling, gardening, scientific experiments, or discussion topics. Creative arts and puzzles reinforce learning.


Lunch is another community meal eaten picnic-style outdoors. More formal lessons may be introduced after students refuel.

Rest Time

Younger children take naps or rest on mats or towels. Older ones read books or listen to music during downtime. Lunch leftovers are packed up.

Afternoon Circle

The group reconnects to sing songs, play games, discuss the day’s adventures, or introduce new ideas.

Outdoor Play

Another extended play period allows children to burn energy before the day ends. Exploration continues until pickup time.

Pick Up

Parents reunite with students and may chat with teachers about the day. Children bring home creations made throughout the day.

The Role of Educators

Wood school teachers take on a different role than traditional educators. Rather than directing lessons, they facilitate learning by:

  • Providing a thoughtfully prepared outdoor learning environment.
  • Observing students closely to assess skills and determine abilities.
  • Integrating academic subjects like math, literacy, and science into outdoor experiences.
  • Asking open-ended questions to spur thinking and discussion.
  • Ensuring child safety while allowing appropriate risks and challenges.
  • Serving as role models who exude curiosity, creativity, and care for nature.
  • Fostering cooperative, respectful relationships throughout the community.
  • Documenting learning through notes, photos, and reflection.

Strong communication skills are vital for explaining activities, engaging students in discussions, interacting with families, and providing feedback. Teachers must be able to teach across academic disciplines while keeping lessons engaging and hands-on.

Unique Aspects of Wood Schools

Several intentional differences set wood schools apart from mainstream educational models:

Mixed-Age Classes

Most wood schools have multi-age groups of students spanning 3-6 years in age. This allows younger children to learn from older role models, while older ones reinforce their knowledge by teaching information and skills.

Regular Outdoor Time

Students are outdoors for 80-90% of the school day, in all weather conditions except dangerous storms. This requires proper outerwear for the climate. Equal time is given to free play and teacher guidance.

Natural Materials

Rather than factory-made toys, wood schools rely on items found in nature for hands-on learning. Students use materials like stones, clay, bark, leaves, sand, water, and snow.

Skills for Life

Along with academic subjects, wood schools teach practical abilities like using tools, climbing, farming, building shelters, making fires, preparing food, and more. Life skills increase capabilities.

Community Engagement

Wood schools encourage family and community involvement through volunteering, sharing skills and hobbies, attending events, and providing feedback. A collaborative culture builds relationships.

Child-Led Exploration

Instead of teacher-driven lessons, the child’s interests lead the learning. Teachers prepare environments and facilitate, but children choose how to engage. This promotes agency.

Getting Started With Wood Schools

For families interested in accessing the benefits of nature-based learning, here are tips for getting started:

  • Look up wood schools in your region through directories like the Natural Start Alliance. Schedule visits to see the model in action.
  • Inquire about schools’ approaches, teacher qualifications, student-teacher ratios, operating hours, ages served, tuition fees, and admission processes.
  • Consider your child’s learning style and needs to determine if a wood school aligns with their strengths. Speak with educators about how they support individual students.
  • Investigate outdoor gear requirements and recommendations. Waterproof outerwear, insulated boots, and layered clothing will maximize comfort.
  • Initiate outdoor adventures as a family on weekends and vacations to build skills and gauge interest before enrolling. Local nature centers offer discovery programs.
  • Attend wood school community events when possible to connect with teachers and families and become familiar with the culture. Sign up to volunteer or contribute.
  • If your location lacks wood schools, encourage your child’s current program to incorporate more outdoor time, natural materials, and nature-based learning approaches into their practices.

Bringing the Benefits Home

For those not enrolled full-time in wood schools, there are still many ways to integrate the forest school philosophy into children’s home life:

  • Spend time outdoors together as a family, in all types of weather. Explore local trails, parks, gardens, and green spaces.
  • Let the child take the lead during outdoor adventures, following their interests and questions. Offer support but allow independence.
  • Provide tools for creating and building, like magnifying glasses, shovels, paintbrushes, and hammer and nails.
  • Choose toys and games made from natural materials like wood, silk, wool, stone, and beeswax. Limit plastic.
  • Set up spaces for open-ended art, sensory play, and discovery in the yard or a corner of the house. Use outdoor items.
  • Encourage inventiveness and problem-solving by presenting challenges like crossing a stream or building a miniature raft.
  • Get involved with scouts, 4-H, the Audubon Society, nature centers, or outdoor clubs in your community. Sign up for family programs.
  • Read books and have discussions about nature, science, and ways children can care for the environment. Nurture empathy.
  • Advocate for more outdoor time and environmental learning at your child’s mainstream school. Share resources with teachers.

The impacts of wood school principles applied at home can lead to a lifelong love of nature, confidence in abilities, and a deeper appreciation for the environment.

A Return to Natural Learning

Wood schools provide a nurturing, empowering educational model that supports children’s innate capacity to learn through creative play and hands-on experiences. By restoring the role of nature as our original classroom, wood schools remind us of the profound human connections we share with the natural world from childhood onward. The benefits reach across generations and communities, spurring a broader cultural shift toward sustainable values.

Laura Kassovic

Laura Kassovic, a former engineer at Intel SOC, now dedicates her efforts to mentoring startups in the realms of Wearables and AI. As a co-founder of New Tech Brake, she spearheads a wireless sensing solution enterprise catering to diverse applications including product development, research, location tracking, and people monitoring, as well as asset and cargo supervision. The platform empowers developers to craft an array of innovations such as fitness trackers, temperature-monitored cargo systems, medical trial tools, smart running garments, or even straightforward transmission of unprocessed accelerometer data to cloud-based repositories.

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