a young boy climbs over a branch in the woods


Why I’m Sending My Child to Forest School and not Kindergarten

Jul 4, 2018

Every Tuesday, starting in September, I will drop my four-year-old son at forest school, where he'll build fires, make bannock over open flames, climb trees and learn to use a knife.

Am I worried about leaving him there? Absolutely not (OK, maybe a tiny bit). Mostly, I feel excited for him. The benefits of risky outdoor play are many and varied: Confidence-building, problem-solving and creativity to name a few.

Truth be told, I'm more worried about the potential negatives of kindergarten. This is where he'd encounter things I consider more dangerous, like the pressure to keep up, and a too-strong focus on academic achievement for such a young age.

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I’m worried the chaos of a busy classroom would make him shut down. I’m worried he’d feel pressured to do things perfectly, rush and “keep up.” The fact that I’m more worried about this than him using a knife and making food over an open fire — without me — at forest school says a lot about my feelings about full-day kindergarten.

I don’t feel like four- and five-year-olds need to be concerned about academic success or jump-starting their learning. Kindergarten is play-based, which in theory is great. But with 30 four- and five-year-olds in one class, it has to be a lot about classroom management (rules and procedures, and minimizing “disruptive” behavior) or it would be complete chaos. Unfortunately that leaves some kids behind: Kids that learn by asking constant questions or by moving their bodies a lot, for starters.

That’s where forest school comes in. This alternative form of education encourages children’s curiosity. There is one teacher to every six students, and it’s an inquiry, play, and place-based education. Sounds dreamy, right? It is! It’s also expensive. So we’ve chosen to sign our son up just one day a week, and the rest of the time he’ll be with me.

"I don’t feel like four- and five-year-olds need to be concerned about academic success or jump-starting their learning."

Yes, we’re lucky to have a free public education system that is a safe and positive learning environment for many kids. For certain kids, the structure of this setting is a perfect fit. For my child, nature seems to be.

There’s a little forest on our street, and when he’s there I watch him come alive. When we’re in that forest, he turns sticks into the letters of his name, he learns cause and effect as he watches what happens when he throws leaves or rocks into the stream. What will float? What will sink? Where will it go? He learns about animals, and the changing of seasons, and how friends can help each other navigate tough situations.

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So, for now, the world of conformity, pressure and competition can wait. I feel lucky to be in the position where I can choose this route for him, that seems to suit his personality and interests so well. I also feel lucky that should we choose it later, we have a public education system available to us.

But, for now at least, I hope he’ll feel free to learn in his own way. To climb trees, build fires, ask questions and be a care-free kid as long as possible.

Article Author Katharine Reid
Katharine Reid

Read more from Katharine here.

Katharine is a freelance writer and editor who loves libraries and nature. The former editor of a health website, she now spends her days with her three adorable young kiddos. A big believer in the power of unstructured free play, she can usually be found either going on outdoor adventures with her kids, setting up invitations to play and create, snuggling up to read or escaping the chaos to head to a yoga class.

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