A forest nursery can best be described as nursery “without a ceiling or walls”. Children spend half of each day outside, in all weathers – playing, learning, building, exploring, climbing trees, getting dirty or close to wildlife and generally forgoing the usual structured classroom environment. A distinctive feature of forest nurseries is the emphasis on play with toys that are fashioned out of objects that can be found in nature, rather than commercial toys. Despite these differences, forest nurseries are meant to fulfill the same basic purpose as other nurseries, namely, to care for, stimulate, and educate young children.
The History of Forest Nurseries
Growing up at the end of the 18th century in the forests of what is now central Germany, the pioneer behind Forest Nurseries; Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel developed a passion for plants and herbs, eventually apprenticing himself to a forester. He studied mathematics and botany, became a tutor to the rich, and increasingly interested in the education of children. Convinced that play was not only constructive but also crucial to a child’s development, he opened an activity centre in 1837 in the town of Bad Blankenburg. Inside its walls, toddlers developed their motor skills with building blocks and patterned toys that he invented. But Froebel was determined that the children spend, like he did, as much time as possible outside – singing, dancing and gardening and exploring. Froebel’s idea was eventually reinvented in Denmark: in 1952, a mother named Ella Flautau decided to apply his core message to her own children. The concept quickly caught on with her neighbours, and spread throughout the country and Scandinavia. There are now between 200 and 300 forest nurseries in Denmark, out of a total of 3,800 nurseries. The concept is catching on in the UK as well with a growing number of nurseries looking to spend more time outside as feasibly possible. Clearly within urban areas, access to the outdoors can be difficult and the distance to a suitable environment realistically impractical.
Forest Nursery activities
Each forest nursery however is different, partly because the organisations are independently minded. But typical activities and goals may include:
|Playing imaginative games using whatever resources and ideas come to mind||This helps children to explore their own thoughts without the guidance of a toy designer ideas come to mind|
|Building shelters or other large structures from branches, with the help of other children and adults||This requires goal definition, planning, engineering, teamwork and perseverance|
|Counting objects or looking for mathematical patterns||Mathematics, visual recognition|
|Memory games using naturally available objects||Memory, naming objects|
|Listening to stories; singing songs and rhymes||Art, drama, concentration|
|Drawing scenes||Art, creativity, accurate inspection and copying|
|Climbing trees and exploring the forest||Improves strength, balance and physical awareness|
|Playing hide-and-seek with others||Develops children’s intellectual capabilities by rewarding accurate anticipation of the thoughts and actions of others|
|Walking to the woodland, from the building||Improves strength and stamina; preparation (e.g., route selection) improves planning and communication skills|
|Exploring or reflecting alone||Aids self-awareness and character development|
Location and Organisation
Forest nurseries operate mainly in woodland, although some other sites can be equally inspiring, for example beaches and meadows. There should be a building where children can shelter from extreme weather. They may also spend a small part of each day indoors, although that is more likely to be for administrative and organisational reasons, such as to provide a known location where parents can deliver and collect their children. If the woodland is too far away to walk, a vehicle might reluctantly be used for transport.
Children are encouraged to dress for the weather, with waterproof clothes and warm layers, according to the climate. The nursery is held outdoors in all seasons and under most weather conditions, although it is moved indoors in extreme weather, for example if the temperature is below −10 °C, or during storms. Forest nurseries are generally composed of a group of 15 to 20 children and at least two staff. An ideal location would be close to residential areas, close to the preferred woodland, and would have a suitable building. There are some forest nurseries that take children of various ages to woodland less frequently, and with a stronger focus on environmental topics themselves.
The fact that most forest nurseries do not provide commercial toys that have a predefined meaning or purpose supports the development of language skills, as children verbally create a common understanding of the objects used as toys in the context of their play. Forest nurseries are also generally less noisy than closed rooms, and noise has been shown to be a factor in the stress level of children and daycare professionals.
Playing outside for prolonged periods has been shown to have a positive impact on children’s development, particularly in the areas of balance and agility, but also manual dexterity, physical coordination and tactile sensitivity.
According to these studies, children who attend forest nurseries experience fewer injuries due to accidents and are less likely to injure themselves in a fall. A child’s ability to assess risks improves, for example in handling fire and dangerous tools. Other studies have shown that spending time in nature improves attention and medical prognosis in women. Playing outdoors strengthens the immune systems of children and daycare professionals.