Pedagogical Principles

Free Forest School programs are guided by pedagogical principles with roots in the Scandinavian forest school tradition, playworker methodologies, self-directed learning — and the good old “come back when the streetlamps come on” style of parenting. By creating a gentle, nurturing environment, Free Forest School supports young children in their natural development, including social/emotional, cognitive, and physical development, sense of wonder, and early citizenship skills.

CHILD-DIRECTED – A child walks through the forest and stops to watch ants working; given the freedom to follow her natural curiosity, the child becomes an agent in her learning process.

EMERGENT – She returns the next week to find a tree has fallen in the path. Because she is not hurried or focused on pre-established goals, she can find answers to the questions that come: Why did the tree fall? What happened to the ants from last week? Her exploration is multifaceted and meaningful.

GENTLE – She stoops to pick up an ant and a friend clambers to take it from her. An adult nearby intones, Gentle touch. Encouraged to move gently in the natural environment, among their peers, and in their use of tools, the children adopt an ethic of care, trust, and cooperation.

NATURE IMMERSION – Hours spent in the forest, a combination of exercise and light focus, have a natural calming effect. The girl digs her fingers into the cold earth, then notices the wind on her face and sets off running down the path.

RISK AND ADVENTURE – The girl arrives at the stream. Peeling off her shoes and socks, she ventures out onto the balancing rocks. She moves cautiously, remembering her chilly submersion last spring. She knows how much risk she can handle, and each week she becomes more balanced and adept.

MIXED AGE – A younger boy watches from the bank of the creek. He tries to step out onto the slippery stones but falls. The girl turns to help him up, then holds his hand while he tries again. He grins at her when he succeeds.

PLACE-BASED – Each week, she returns to the same trail, the same fort in the bushes, the same balancing stones across the creek. She notices transformations in the forest and internalizes the seasonal changes. Over time, she gains a deep sense of confidence and connection, fostering her growing independence.

ADULTS AS PROTECTORS OF PLAY – The adults around her are intentional in their participation, working cooperatively to create a loving environment for the girl and her playmates. The adults are relaxed and playful, putting her at ease.

INCLUSION AND COMMUNITY – When she sits down with her adult at circle time, the little girl is surrounded by families from diverse backgrounds. She shares food and makes friends among them. The children hike out together, singing and joking. The dappled light and flashing green of the forest stay with her the whole bus ride home.

We have the world to live in on the condition that we will take good care of it.

And to take good care of it, we have to know it.

And to know it and to be willing to take care of it, we have to love it.


Free Forest School programs are developed by parents and educators who are passionate about bringing the core values of Free Forest School to life in their families, schools, and communities.



Free Forest School groups are for kids birth to 6 and their parent or caregiver. Older siblings are welcome, too!

You’ll share a snack, take a hike, play in the woods, and have circle time. Adults get a chance to unplug and step back… Kids and their imaginations take the lead!

Learn more


Our kids are growing up, and they still want to play in the woods! Free Forest School leaders around North America are busy piloting big kid groups. Join your local group to see what’s happening for big kids in your community.

We are also piloting the Elementary Phenology Project. It’s a simple, flexible model for use by parent volunteers and teachers in elementary-age classes emphasizing child-led exploration and nature play.

Contact us to learn more

Beyond Babywearing: Why Newborns Belong at Free Forest School

Published on February 16, 2018

By Katherine Wilcox Dudley There may be a sentiment that children will get more out…

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Splashing and Singing: What can children learn from playing in the rain?

Published on February 8, 2018

By Sheila Williams-Ridge, member of the FFS Startup Council Editor’s Note: Weather is often a…

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RIE Principles for Parenting in Nature

Published on January 30, 2018

Editor’s Note: FFS doesn’t promote any particular parenting philosophy or method, the RIE parenting method echoes so…

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