What Is Nature School?

by Marcie
5 kids eating lunch on the rocks and logs at nature school

Nature school, forest school, wildschool, whatever you want to call it, I love it! I love them all. I know there are technical differences like nature school is just part of your school day whereas forest school is 100% outside rain or shine. It doesn’t matter to me, I love the concept behind all of them. Outside time is wonderful for both me and my children. My happiest moments are working, playing, or doing school outside.

What is Nature School?

Nature school can look different for different people. In Utah we had 3 different definitions.

1. We called it nature school whenever we packed up a backpack full of things to do, packed a lunch, and parked ourselves in a nature-ish spot. Sometimes we drove into the canyon and stopped at a hiking trail. We’d hike a bit and find a good place off the trail where we could hang out for a few hours.

2. Other times we simply went to a park. We’d still bring our picnic blanket and backpacks full of things to do. In the backpacks were toy cars, books, sketch books, and colored pencils. Sometimes binoculars or a magnifying glass. Whatever the kids thought to bring along. We would sit and eat our lunch in the shade of a big tree and plan to be there for a few hours. In both places the idea was the same: to get away from home, cooking, housework, neighbors asking to play, phones ringing, things needing to be done.

3. Lastly, we had the more official nature school where I organized groups of children by age and got paid to do nature school with them. One day I would take 3 year olds, another day 4-6 year olds, and another day 7-10 year olds. It was from 9-3 each day. We played games, read books, and had a lot of child-directed play. Sometimes we pretended to be on an African safari and other times we fished. We made up songs and built towns in the sand. It was a lot of fun.

A time to get away and be kids

Families used to take all day outings to the beach or a church picnic all the time. Nowadays everything is so rushed. Nature school time gives us the space to sit and relax for a few hours. The kids can run on the trails, make a house in the scrub oak, play with their cars in the dirt. I preferred the hiking trails over the playgrounds but as we lived in the city, the playgrounds were closer. So it was better than not going anywhere. Sometimes we brought actual school work as in math or spelling workbooks. But mostly we brought sketch books for drawing a flowering bush and books to read outloud or to ourselves.

Our rental house in Utah had a fabulous sport court in the small back yard but it didn’t have bike trails, a creek, bushes to play hide and seek in, or much grass or dirt. It was mostly paved. So getting out into nature was a big priority of mine. I yearned for my children to play for hours, making forts with fallen branches or pretending to be in a motorcycle race, using sticks for handlebars and running up and down on the dirt trails. I wanted them to lose all sense of time and just play like they did in the olden days. Now that we live in the country on 36 acres my dream has come true.

Here in the Blue Ridge Mountains we can hike on our own property and do all the nature things I’ve mentioned. Some times we do school outside where the kids take their workbooks and sit at the picnic table and do them. I’ll read the history lesson to them and we’ll discuss it or act it out. And we love doing read aloud outside. It just feels good to be outside.

But most of the time the kids just go out and play which is what true forest schools usually are. They play in our mud kitchen. They build forts and stores in the woods and use acorn caps for their currency. They catch crawdads in the creek. They make dragon nests and play dragons. They take their dolls on picnics and hikes. I could go on and on. Nature time is wonderful for children and we need more of it. Hopefully this inspires you to take your children out in nature.

Nature school can be whatever you want it to be

  • Bringing your school outside.
  • Going to a park and sitting under a tree with books, sketch books, small toys.
  • Reading a few chapters of a book outloud to your kids on the porch, grass, or trampoline.
  • Going on a nature hunt around your yard or neighborhood.
  • Gathering nature to use in an art project or craft.
  • Taking children to a state park, nature reserve, or forest and letting them play there for a few hours.
  • Sending your child to a formal nature school or forest kindergarten.

What is nature school to you? Let me know in the comments!

PS This website, the Forest School Foundation, has lots of articles about nature school/outdoor time. It lists the benefits, books, and organizations that support it.

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