See adorable photos of 7 'forest schools' from around the country.

Ahh, there’s nothing better than some time with Mother Nature.

Breathing the fresh air, being unplugged and disconnected, experiencing the peacefulness of the outdoors ... it’s pretty fantastic.

When kids go outside and play in nature, there are real benefits to both physical health and emotional well-being. The only problem is, kids are spending less time in nature and more time hooked up to their tablets, smartphones, and video games.


Maybe it’s time to put down that device and take a walk in the woods!

That's why in Denmark, “forest kindergartens” have scrapped the traditional preschool classroom.

These schools take kids back into nature, allowing them to learn through free play and exploration. And this less structured preschool setup seems to be working. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Danish schools outperformed American schools in math and science.

Luckily, Danes aren’t the only ones taking early childhood education back into nature.

There is a growing movement of forest schools right here in the United States as well. Here are just a few of them (and they’re all pretty awesome).

1. Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten (Vashon, Washington)

Kids at Cedarsong head off to another adventure in the forest. Photo by Cedarsong Nature School used with permission

In a typical preschool, you'd likely see a plethora of brightly colored toys, a water/sand table (my personal favorite), puzzles, blocks, and if you’re lucky, an outdoor playground. Basically, you’d never run out of activities to do.

Well, at Cedarsong Nature School, things are just a little bit different. Cedarsong believes in an unstructured immersion in nature. This means there is no set agenda, projects, or teacher direction. Cedarsong sees a value in just being in nature, not necessarily even needing to “do” anything.

Building a "dam" in the mud. Photo by Cedarsong Nature School, used with permission

At Cedarsong Nature School, kids are encouraged to explore, ask questions, cooperate with one another, and take moderate risks to build self-confidence. Teachers guide students in their curiosity about nature, but don’t hover over the kids or monitor their every move.

2. Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (Mystic, Connecticut)

Who needs a tablet when you have a forest? (And a bunny!) Photos by Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, used with permission

The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center preschool certainly lives up to its motto: “nature is our niche.” The preschool is situated on a 400-acre nature preserve, complete with meadows, ponds, hiking trails, and plenty of rocks and trees to climb on. They consider these grounds to be a “living classroom,” which is a pretty cool concept!

The DPNC Nature Preschool has turned down offers to create a structured "nature playground." They believe that nature creates its own playground, where children can create their imaginative, limitless fun.

3. Little Tree Huggers (Leesburg, Virginia)

Making new friends at Little Tree Huggers. Photo by Heaton Johnsonm used with permission

At Little Tree Huggers, children not only learn about math and language arts, but are also immersed in Spanish and exposed to German and Italian. However, what truly sets LTH apart from a “normal” preschool is that most instruction takes place outdoors in a natural environment surrounded farm animals.

Kids and chickens, what better combination? Photo by Heaton Johnson, used with permission

Children have the freedom to choose their playtime activities, which might include interacting with animals, making paintings with natural materials, or listening to the sounds of nature from the Little Tree Huggers observation deck. There is an emphasis on sustainability, teaching kids from a young age how to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

4. Worldmind Nature Immersion School (Denver, Colorado)

A little snow and ice can't keep these kids from having fun. Photo by Worldmind School, used with permission

Located in Colorado, Worldmind Nature Immersion School has its fair share of extreme weather. But no matter the season, one thing remains the same. Kids spend the entire day outside — they don’t even have an indoor facility!

Tree trunk too high? Not for these kids! Photo by Worldmind School, used with permission

School classes are held entirely on public land, exploring open space and city parks to connect children to the ecology of where they live. If there is extremely severe weather, they’ll explore indoor places, such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to enhance their learning of the natural world. Worldmind School provides an informal setting for learning to naturally occur during free outdoor playtime.

5. Nature Preschool at Irvine (Owings Mills, Maryland)

Catching butterflies or going for a hike sure beats the classroom. Photo by Nature Preschool at Irvine, used with permission

At the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center, teachers act as guides, allowing children to venture out and discover the magic of nature in unstructured nature play. Children develop responsibility and independence through everything they do, from putting their own boots on to composting an apple to feeding the birds.

While the learning here takes place almost entirely in nature, it is licensed by the state of Maryland and accredited by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), showing that these nature-immersion schools still provide a strong foundation. However, Irvine Nature Preschool doesn’t rush or force the learning process; it allows children to learn and develop at their own natural pace.

6. Mother Earth School (Portland, Oregon)

Learning how to use (real) tools. Photo by Mother Earth School, used with permission

At Mother Earth School, children play in a grove of cedar trees, the perfect backdrop for free play. Kids use their imagination to make the forest come to life. Who needs plastic toys (or any toys, really), when you can make a tree branch become a fishing pole or turn a log into a train?

There's plenty of time for free play each day, in addition to time spent making natural arts and crafts. Kids here begin learning how to carve wood with real Swiss-made knives at the age of four (um, I can’t do that, and I’m an adult) — talk about fine motor skills!

During snack time, kids help to build the fire and then get to enjoy organic snacks cooked on a rocket stove and bread baked fresh in a cob oven. This sounds a whole lot more exciting than the Nilla wafers I ate from a box (which were admittedly delicious) during my preschool years!

7. Berkeley Forest School (Berkeley, California)

Forget electronics. Trees are all these kids need! Photo by Berkeley Forest School, used with permission

While there is a daily routine at Berkeley Forest School, no two days end up the same. The discoveries kids make on their daily adventures provide inspiration for sensory-based learning activities. A typical day includes observing wildlife and journaling about the findings, building swings and shelters in the woods, and building and cooking on an open fire.

Look at that concentration! Photo by Berkeley Forest School, used with permission

The forest school movement is continuing to expand in the United States (and around the world), taking kids out of structured classroom and back into nature.

Hooray for forest schools! Photos by Nature Preschool at Irvine used with permission

Judging by the looks on these kids faces, it seems like these programs are doing something (perhaps almost everything) right!

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

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Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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