We Sent Our Child To a Forest School During the Pandemic—And It Was Exactly What We Needed

We decided to send our 3-year-old to forest preschool so that working from home and taking care of his younger sibling would be easier during the pandemic. Here's why it was the best decision we could have made during such a difficult time.

An image of children in an outdoor forest school.
Photo: Getty Images.

My almost 1-year-old had started walking over the summer, and suddenly, every day became an impromptu gymnastics class led by my 3-year-old. The crib mattress became a ramp. The couch became a pirate ship. If I tried to make phone calls or sit down with my laptop, somebody somersaulted into a wall or walked the plank.

We went through what every parent of small children went through last year during the pandemic. Do we risk exposure for income? For normalcy? For sanity? I'd been struggling with the fact that the more work I completed, the more sedentary my family was (including me), and the more active my family was, the more my work life suffered.

Around that same time, a friend shared an article on Facebook about a forest school that was opening in a month within 10 minutes of our house. I filled out the paperwork for admission that afternoon; there were only 10 spots. It started as a half-day program, but later began offering full days on Tuesday and Thursday. Broken down by hour, the tuition was more expensive than his regular daycare, but less expensive than private preschools.

What is a Forest School?

Forest schools, or nature-based education where trained practitioners take the school day outdoors, started in Scandinavia decades ago before spreading to other parts of the world. These programs encourage personal, social, and technical skills, and have a small class size.

I couldn't resist a small, open-air class with minimal surfaces and plenty of social distancing—and three mornings a week with only one child to handle while I worked from home. Forest school days turned out to be the only time I accomplished anything during the second half of the pandemic.

The program was run by the local nature center in Louisville, Kentucky, the first of its kind in the city, though other outdoor preschools exist in nearby counties. I soon discovered forest preschools were not new, and they're becoming more common—especially during the pandemic—and I understand why.

What My Son Learned

My child is more naturally risk-averse. He's a cautious kid; always has been. What he gained most from an outdoor program was how to develop assessment skills around risky play. He learned how to judge heights and determine the safety level of certain climbs or jumps with his own body's strength and balance in mind. It's taught him to notice his comfort levels and respect them in himself and others. He improved his coordination and gross motor skills in ways unmatched on a regular playground; he lifted branches and climbed logs and waded into streams. In addition to physical skills, he can now gently handle the tiniest insects, identify certain birds, and knows to leave wild animals alone.

The author's son at his forest school.
The author's son at his forest school. Courtesy of Ashley Clayton Kay

What We Learned

The big takeaway for my husband and I was how to properly dress our children for cold and wet weather. It's one thing to dress a kid for 45 minutes of snowball fighting in the backyard; it's entirely different to dress him to be warm for three straight hours.

I learned you do not need expensive clothing. You need the right layers: thin layers, fleece layers, and waterproof layers. At one point, my son was regularly wearing four pairs of pants!

We saved our money by sending him in a consignment store coat, used his lightweight pajamas as our thin layers, and invested instead in waterproof footwear and mittens. The program regularly provided discount codes for outdoor clothing brands, such as Oaki and Polarn O. Pyret.

What Surprised Us About Forest School

At first, I worried he might get hurt more frequently. But minor scrapes and bumps can't be avoided, and those events were no more serious or more frequent than ones at previous daycares. There's a tendency to think there's more danger in an outdoor program because of the environment, but there's something in an outdoor program that regular schools don't have—more space. Space to take your time. Space to spin around. Space to run. Space to get out of the way. Having that kind of room can make all the difference when it comes to risk.

But what about the stuff he didn't learn because he was running around in the mud for six months? Based on a few comments, I could tell some family members were concerned he might be missing out academically because he was gathered around a fire in the snowy woods for much of January and February. But nothing about school this past year was normal, and he's only a preschooler. What better time to let him play? Why put academic pressure on a 3-year-old during the pandemic?

The Bottom Line

Before COVID-19, our son had been in two daycares and another preschool, and without a doubt, forest school has been the family favorite. On days my son had forest school, he was in a better mood. He also started taking naps again, which he had stopped doing for the first part of the pandemic. There were so many losses last year, that was enough of a win for us.

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