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Does attending Free Forest School intimidate you? Don’t let it!

We are a friendly, welcoming community of parents and caregivers from many different backgrounds. We agree on one thing – playing in nature should be a part of childhood.

But we don’t have it all figured out… Far from it! Led by parent volunteers, we figure it out together. Come join us!

What does a day at FFS look like?

Each meeting starts with a 20-minute mingling and snacking period. After a short introductory talk, the group sets off toward Base Camp or another chosen destination. The hike may go quickly, or the group may find places to explore and play along the way. Since forest school is child-led, sometimes the kids head into various directions or some kids may just decide to explore close to the starting point; whatever they choose is fine.

After arriving at Base Camp, the children have free play time. Eventually, the facilitator of the day will initiate the start of Circle Time – songs and stories. After Circle Time, some picnic and keep playing; others depart for nap, etc.

Sample timeline:

9:40   Meet and snack

10:00  Child-led hike and exploration

10:20  Arrive Base Camp – start free play

11:20  Circle Time

How long do the meetings last?

We encourage families to stay for a minimum of two hours to allow time for hiking, gathering, and at least an hour of unstructured play. As renowned educational theorist Peter Gray says, “It takes time to try out different things. It takes time to get bored, to overcome boredom….It takes time… to really delve into your passion.” Many families stay much longer, allowing the youngest children to nap outdoors. We often see the kids who stay several hours reach a deeply engaged, content form of imaginative play. The short answer is that you can leave after Circle Time, but the longer you stay the more you’ll get out of it.

If I come late, can I find the group?

Maybe. If you know the trails and our usual path to Base Camp, you may find the group. But because we emphasize letting the children lead and due to changing environmental conditions, the schedule and destination are unpredictable. If you are running late, come anyway. The worst thing that can happen is that you have a relaxing morning in the woods with your kids.

We are all late from time to time, but we do not encourage families to routinely arrive late to FFS. Being present for the introductory talk gives the children a sense of belonging and information about the day. Arriving late or leaving during Circle Time can be disruptive to the group and is generally discouraged.

We have never attended before. What can we expect?

Some children and families jump right into Free Forest School, while others experience an adjustment period. We encourage you to attend a few times before you decide if FFS “works” for your family. If your children are unaccustomed to playing in nature, taking a leadership role, or interacting with children of all ages, it’s very natural for them to stick close to you. Most children, after a few days at FFS, will find their groove. And the beauty of the loose structure at FFS is that almost any child, no matter their personality, needs, and abilities, can find a way to enjoy it.

Many parents feel societal to monitor and attend to their children constantly when out in public. At playgrounds, it’s common to see a parent closely overseeing the sharing of a toy between two children or enforcing a strict “no throwing rocks” rule, for example. The idea behind FFS is to create a place where parents and children can be more free. You get to relax into parenting as you see fit, empower your children to make decisions for themselves, act as a supporter to them by offering tools for assessing risk and solving problems, and watch the magic as their natural sense of wonder and confidence unfold.

What is the philosophy of FFS?

Taking cues from the original Scandinavian forest schools, playworker principles, and self-directed learning practices,, our program prioritizes free play in nature. Giving children the chance to take reasonable risks, FFS encourages the development of confident, responsible, inquisitive children who have a deep, personal connection with the natural world.

What are the benefits of FFS for my children? For me?

Participants report seeing their children become more independent, careful, motivated, happy, calm, social, and confident. Better sleep, fewer tantrums, better appetite, and increased coordination are other common outcomes for children. Adult participants report feeling more calm, less stressed, more centered, and more patient. Adults and children both report making new friends and enjoying a strong sense of community.

If you attend Free Forest School and see the program as beneficial to your family, we encourage you to serve as a volunteer or make a financial donation to support our work. Parents who volunteer as facilitators or or on the Leadership Board additionally find a strong and supportive community amongst the group’s leaders, and experience the benefits of service in their community.

Is FFS academic enough? Will it prepare my child for kindergarten?

Pressure to push academics with young children has increased over recent decades, yet research consistently shows negative outcomes in children who are pushed academically at a young age. Young children naturally learn through play and social interaction; pre-literacy comes through language development and storytelling; early math concepts emerge through categorization, sorting, and problem-solving outdoors. Perhaps most important is the social-emotional development of a young child, which Free Forest School fosters through giving children freedom to play and interact with mixed-age peers.

Is FFS dangerous?

Any time you enter into the wilderness, there are inherent hazards and allowing children to take reasonable risks is a core element of the philosophy. However, that does not mean that children should be allowed to do anything they want, or that children at FFS are unsupervised. Managing risk for and with your children is up to you. Often parents feel guarded and cautious with their children in nature at first; over time, you will develop your own personal boundaries and style for managing risk with your children. Other adults in the FFS are a great resource for learning creative ways to teach children about risk and decision-making — skills that will serve them well later in life.

Can older siblings attend?

In general, yes. Older siblings should be prepared to follow the general expectations and routines of FFS. Some locations are piloting “Big Kids” groups for school-aged children.

How does FFS adapt to children with special needs?

Free Forest School meetings follow a loose structure which is designed to create an inclusive community for all young children. While some physical disabilities may be difficult to accommodate in certain locations, children with special needs are generally encouraged to attend. All aspects of the FFS routine are optional, and children are never required or pressured to participate. To learn about which FFS sites might best accommodate a particular physical limitation or disability, contact us.

Can I bring my baby to FFS?

Yes! Babies benefit from time in nature as much as anyone. It’s fabulous to watch babies discover trees, shadows, sunlight, wind and the sound of birds. As your baby’s mobility increases, she can grasp leaves and rocks, crawl and scoot, pull up on boulders, have sensory experiences exploring sand and water, and interact with older children through play and singing. Research has also shown that babies benefit from napping outdoors.

My toddler is slow - will FFS work for us?

Not a problem. Letting children lead the day is our main priority, so your child really can’t do anything wrong. Each event has multiple experienced families who know the park well, and a Lead and Sweep are appointed in each group to make sure we don’t lose anyone.

Can our nanny/grandma/uncle etc bring my kids?

Yes! Just make sure they have signed the waiver and are prepared.

How long is the hike?

Never very far. Walking at an adult pace, you can reach most FFS basecamps in 10-15 minutes. We take our time along the child-led hike, but most walking children can hike to basecamp under their own power.

Where do we go to the bathroom?

Many of our sites have restrooms at the parking area. Once we depart from the parking lot, there are generally no restrooms. We teach children to go to the bathroom in the woods, following Leave No Trace principles. Find a place away from water sources and off the trail. While urine will not harm the environment, solid waste should be collected and disposed of properly. Consider carrying a plastic bag or extra diaper for this purpose.

Some young children have trouble learning to squat at first. Consider purchasing a folding travel potty or doing an assisted squat if your child has trouble squatting.

What should we bring to FFS?

Some people like to bring a full pack; others travel light. Consider bringing:

  • plenty of water
  • snack to share (no peanuts)
  • picnic lunch / extra snacks
  • blanket or tarp to sit on
  • change of clothes
  • appropropriate clothing and footwear for the site and weather
  • sun block / bug spray / small first aid kit
  • backpack
  • baby carrier
  • trash bag / plastic bag for wet clothes or garbage
  • diapers / wipes if needed

PLEASE DON’T BRING: Toys, strollers, dogs or other pets

If you use a stroller to get to FFS, plan to leave it at the trailhead. You may want to bring a bike lock to secure it as it will be unsupervised.

What should I bring for the snack potluck?

This throws a lot of people off. It’s not intended to be an extra chore – just bring a simple, healthy snack, enough for a couple of kids. Examples: cut up fruit or raw vegetables, cheese slices, crackers, edamame. Every now and then someone gets inspired to bake muffins for the group or brings juice and paper cups. Please avoid peanut products.

What do FFS groups do about food allergies?

We ask that families avoid bringing peanuts for shared snack, but this can be difficult to enforce across the board. In general, if your child has an allergy, we ask that you bring it to the attention of the group at the beginning of each FFS meeting.

Are facilitators trained as guides?

No. Facilitators are simply there to provide a meeting point and a bit of structure. They may choose to offer an optional activity to the children. Parents or other adult caregivers are always responsible for the children in their own care.

Are facilitators trained in first aid? Do they carry first aid kits?

No, facilitators are not trained in first aid and do not carry first aid kits. They are responsible for their own children’s safety, and you are responsible for yours. Educate yourself and your child(ren) about hazards outdoors. Consider carrying a small first aid kit.

Is FFS cancelled for bad weather? How will I know if it is cancelled?

Yes, FFS is canceled at times, in cases of dangerous environmental conditions, or situations when our presence would damage the park or trails. We provide information about cancellation of each event in the Facebook event invitation at least an hour before the event is set to begin. Please refer to our official Cancellation Policy.

The dates, times, locations, etc don't work for me. How can I attend?

Free Forest School groups are volunteer-run, and the current event offerings represent days/times/locations that work for them. If you’d like to see another event added, we encourage you to volunteer as a facilitator. Facilitating is very low-commitment and it’s fun!

I don't want photos of my child(ren) on social media. Can I avoid that?

Part of the waiver includes a photograph release. However, we try to respect individual parents’ wishes about whether their child’s photo is used online. If you don’t want to be in photographs, please ask the appointed photographer each time you attend FFS to avoid taking pictures of your child. If a photo accidentally is put online of your child, ask to have it removed and the volunteer administrators will do so.

I love FFS! How can I volunteer to help?

FFS groups are entirely volunteer-run and there are many ways to get involved. The most important role is that of Facilitator – volunteers who commit to providing a meeting point and basic structure to a FFS meeting at least once per month. Free Forest School groups are overseen by volunteer Leadership Teams which perform a variety of roles. Recognizing the demanding and often changing nature of parenting, all volunteer roles are completely flexible and are often a collaborative group effort. Contact your local leadership team to get involved!

The national Free Forest School organization is governed by a Board of Directors. Board Committees are always open to new volunteers who’d like to volunteer for a single project or on an ongoing basis. Contact us to learn about current opportunities.

Does FFS accept donations?

Yes! We function as a non-profit (meaning we can accept tax-deductible donations) through a fiscal agent agreement with the Loppet Foundation; meanwhile, we are working to become a non-profit organization. At this time, donations go to support the development of new and existing Free Forest School groups and special projects to increase equity of access to nature play. Make a donation through Paypal.

Can my company become a sponsor?

Business sponsorship opportunities are now available; please contact us for details. Free Forest School sponsorship includes website and social media visibility as well as advertising slots in our quarterly newsletter, Seedlings.

Where can I sign up to receive the newsletter?

We provide a quarterly newsletter, Seedlings, featuring organizational updates, articles, and gear discounts from our sponsors. Sign up here.

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Free Forest School is a grassroots efforts run by volunteers. We welcome donations of time, skills, and funds.


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