What Is An Outdoor School?

Read about outdoor schools (or forest schools) which blend nature and education together to create a unique and effective childhood learning experience.

Find out about the history of outdoor schooling, what is an outdoor school, and what makes it different from traditional education, and how it can benefit children’s curiosity, independence, and enthusiasm to learn.

What Is An Outdoor School?

What Is An Outdoor School?

Outdoor or schools are a type of childhood education, where the “classroom” is situated outdoors. Outdoor schools are also referred to as “forest schools”, despite the fact they can take place in any outdoor area that is rich in nature, not just the forest. 

Outdoor schools can take place in wooded areas, parks, farms or even zoos. They are sometimes referred to as nature schools or nature nurseries/kindergartens (for younger children between the ages of three and five years).

The History Of Outdoor Schools

Denmark was the first country to popularize outdoor forest schooling, back in the 1950s. The reason Denmark started to roll out outdoor education was because there was a significant lack of space for indoor preschools and nurseries. 

Once outdoor schools became prominent, it was noticed that the children learned really well and thrived when education took place outside.

As a result, the outdoor schooling trend began to spread globally over decades. Outdoor schools now exist all over the world, and are especially prominent in countries such as the UK, Canada, Australia and the U.S.A.

What Makes Outdoor Schools Different?

Outdoor school environments focus more on learning through outdoor play, and encouraging children to become curious about nature and explore their surroundings.

Classes take place entirely outdoors, normally in woodland areas, and take a learner centered approach through play and exploration. 

Outdoor schools are different from normal schools because learning is initiated through the children’s deepening curiosity and individual interests, and follows flexible, unstructured conventions. 

Rather than following the traditional educational method of investigative questioning, staff working at outdoor schools take a more observational role to support the children in their own choices. 

Children choose their own activities and play in their own way, allowing them to discover their individual interests and curiosities as well as fostering independence, motivation and confidence in a highly supportive and encouraging manner. 

Outdoor schools do not incorporate exams, homework, or specific tasks, which may also help to reduce certain intrinsic stressors associated with childhood education.

Instead, the focus of outdoor schooling is on the individual student and their ability to develop social skills and initiative when interacting with their naturistic environment. 

Teachers and staff at outdoor schools develop play-based learning plans that focus on exploration, curiosity and problem solving skills, which can be changed and adapted to suit children’s learning needs through observation, rather than following a strict curriculum.

What Do Children Learn In Outdoor Schools?

What Do Children Learn In Outdoor Schools

The learning that takes place in outdoor schools is highly varied and depends on the individual school, location, and the school’s own learning mantras and focuses.

Outdoor schools do not have to follow a rigid structure and therefore have flexible and ever-changing learning programs which are based on observation and individual learner needs.

The learning style is therefore very adaptable and humanistic. Outdoor classes are always held outside, in any weather, which means children learn to wear the correct clothing items for different conditions and are taught to take care in certain weather environments.

Activities can differ majorly between outdoor schools, but lessons always focus on learning through nature. Some of the activities and lessons you can expect from an outdoor school include but are not limited to: arts and crafts, survival skills, yoga, music, hiking, orienteering, stories and campfire time, exploration and climbing trees. 

Outdoor schools focus on interpersonal skills and building curiosity and an appreciation for nature. Expect lots of group work to increase communication and teamwork skills, problem-solving activities and spatial and motor development through sensory play and physical exercises. 

Children are taught important survival skills and are mentored to be able to efficiently weigh up risks; for example by climbing trees and creating campfires, where they are carefully monitored by a staff member.

These activities help children to become more confident, resilient and able to make decisions independently. Children also create projects using nature and learn how to grow food sources. They are taught to care for the environment and appreciate nature. 

Why Outdoor Schools Are Becoming So Popular

Outdoor schools are becoming more popular globally, especially in the U.S.A and Canada. It is starting to become apparent that overloading children with homework, tests and assignments adversely impacts their social and emotional development and can cause stress to hinder the learning process. 

This is especially true of young children, who learn better through play and exploration. Parents are beginning to understand that children thrive in outdoor conditions when they are allowed to explore nature and engage in lots of physical activities and hands-on tasks. 


It is evident that children develop a natural curiosity, confidence, and initiative through play and outdoor exploration.

Outdoor (or forest) schools provide a holistic, learner-centered approach to childhood education which fosters creativity and a resounding appreciation for nature and physical activity.

It makes children great team players armed with a diverse skill set, independence and an understanding that they need to take care of the environment, which is very important for future generations. 

Children who attend outdoor schools may experience a marked reduction in stress, and while academic learning is important, it could be argued that the blending of nature and learning is key to unlocking a child’s full potential in terms of their social and emotional development.

Joyce Bailey
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