When I read about forest schools here first about three years ago, there was hardly any information about them. None of the fancy documentaries and movies and articles and news programs that have profiled this great and legitimate path for learning. Part of me wishes I had all that information too, it would have been less daunting! But part of me also knows that I probably would have made the same decision anyway. If anything, the decision might have been a little easier for me, since I had to trust my gut instinct on that whole kooky notion of leaving my then two and a half-year old out in the woods all day, weather, elements and all.
Still, while it was my gut instinct that helped me go for it, there were some key questions that I ended up asking myself. Not just when we first thought about it, but then again and again in the first days and weeks, even months, to determine and redetermine that this choice was the right one for us, and I thought I would share those here for those considering the forest schools program either here in Denmark, or in the multitude of other countries where these types of schools are also offered. And none of these questions have anything to do with whether you’re an outdoors person yourself or if you enjoy making rations on a bunsen burner etc. My point it, you don’t necessary have to be the “forest type” yourself in order to go for it, but you do have to believe and trust that all this forest stuff is ultimately a good thing.
Do you fundamentally believe that being outdoors all day, every day is right for your child?
This is the first question because it is probably the most important one, and I can’t stress that enough. First, because it is critical that you think about this experience from the perspective of your child. You know your child better than anyone, so really go with what your instinct is on whether this is a good fit for them. In some cases, you might find that it’s all the recent articles and shows and all of that which have made the “idea” of forest schools appealing to us as adults as the next shiny thing, overlooking what might be the best fit for our child.
But on the flip side, it’s probably more likely that we have the opposite problem. Meaning that, it might be that time outside and independence and self-driven exploration is what are children are craving. But we as parents might have envisioned something else – like early education, and tutors and Mandarin Chinese. If forest school is right for your child, are you willing to set aside whatever expectations you had so that your child gets what they need, and not what you thought you wanted?
The second reason that it is important is because there is a high chance you might doubt yourself in your decision. More than once. Especially on the days when your children might struggle a bit. And if you’re an expat in Denmark, for example, they won’t just be getting used to the forest – that’s actually the easy part – but they will also be getting used to the culture and language. It will seem easier some days in the beginning to pull them out and start all over with something safer…more traditional…so ask yourself, do you fundamentally think this is right? If you do, go for it and remember that core belief on the days that you doubt yourself.
Do you trust your forest school institution and your forest school teachers?
This is arguably just as important as the first. Trust is a critical part of making the forest school system work because by definition, we expose our kids to environments and challenges and tools and countless other things that have an element of potential difficulty or potential danger to them. Good forest schools are run by extremely caring, trained staff who are capable in the areas they need to be good forest school teachers. They might not follow the same protocols or have the same daily newsletters or all those doo-dads of traditional schools, but outdoors, in the woods, they have a complete handle on the situation. Do you feel that they do? Do you trust that they do? Do you feel that the experience is there between the teachers and the institution so that when you leave after dropping them off for the day, you do so with confidence?
Are you okay with a different sequence to learning?
It’s a common misconception that while the children are out in the woods “all day” that they’re not learning anything, because they are busy playing. But that’s not at all the case. I’m still floored sometimes when my daughter will recite back the alphabet or spellings to me, or addition sequences, or strings of rhyming words…not to mention when she identifies plants I shouldn’t touch or random bird species I’ve never heard of. I didn’t teach her those things, the forest school did. But they don’t teach with traditional pen and paper, with desks and blackboards. So learning occurs but it’s entrenched in their day and it often comes in different sequencing or at a different pace that we might expect? Are you okay with that?
Are you comfortable with dirt?
It goes without saying perhaps that children at forest school get dirty. Really, really dirty. They relish dirt, and it’s all part of their playground: dirt, mud, sand…you name it. It will be on their clothes (constant laundry), in your car (constant car wash) and in random places you didn’t expect. Making time for baths is a must. So is scrubbing under fingernails. So is replacing clothes and gears on a regular basis, not to mention having two sets of everything on hand. It’s a good kind of dirty (remember the two kinds?), but it still is dirty. I read in an article once that one of the main reasons teachers didn’t take their kids outside is because parents would call and complain about how dirty their kids would come home. Would the parent calling be you?
Are you okay with a lot being out of your hands?
As our children transition to any school, we face the increasing pressure to be comfortable with the fact that much of their day is away from us. But in forest school, there is also a good part of the day that’s out of your hands. If you wanted to drop by and check on them at the school, they wouldn’t be there – they would already be out and about on their daily explorations. You might not know exactly where they are because the original location for the day wasn’t the right one for some reason so they changed course to follow a deer herd, or chase the sun, or take advantage of a patch of fresh snow for sledding. If you do have trust, as mentioned above, in the school and teachers, are you willing to follow through on that and trust that they are making the best decisions for the child/children throughout the day without your input?
Can you be on time?
In our school, we have a lot of flexibility on the drop-off window which is a godsend for parents. But in many places in the city, the children get an earlier start and unlike ours who ride public transport, they often take a chartered bus that departs at a given time. Which means that if you miss the bus, you also miss school. If you are looking at an institution that buses, or that has a fixed early non-negotiable departure time, can you realistically make that time every morning?
Are you prepared to be considered just a little bit weird?
Perhaps you might even be considered a hippie? But if you run in circles where choosing schools to align with prep schools is a thing, or where traditional schooling is highly valued, are you comfortable with friends and acquaintances thinking you’re slightly off-kilter? If you’re truly comfortable with yourself and the answer to the first question, what some other people think is the least of your worries, but even with high confidence, it alway stings the heart a bit when someone questions your parenting or choices. And it certainly does happen (it usually sounds something like “That is so exciting that little Bobby goes to the woods all day…of course, we could never do that, I would never be able to feel that he was safe out there” or, “It’s so fantastic that Suzy does nothing but play all day – what kind of tutors have you lined up for her to make sure she will ever learn to read? “). Are you okay shrugging off the comments of others from time to time because you fundamentally believe that being outside all day, every day is good for your child?