About School Forests

What’s a school forest?

A school forest is an outdoor classroom where teachers and students explore the natural world to teach core subjects such as math, science, reading, writing, geography, physical education, the arts, and others. The site can be used year-round by schools and community organizations. School forests in Minnesota range in size from one to 300 acres of land. The land is typically managed by the school under the direction of the School Forest Committee. School forests are special pieces of land that are used for a variety of educational activities.

Schools in the program range from rural to urban, preschool to university-level, and public and private. Some schools can access their land simply by walking out of the school building; others may need to bus students. All schools work toward the same goal... connecting students to the natural world while building each student’s self-esteem, sense of community, skill level, and knowledge base. The DNR helps by ensuring that school forests stay well-used and healthy long-term.

What is the School Forest Program?

The Minnesota School Forest Program is a partnership between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota schools established by Minnesota Statute 89.41.

The School Forest Program serves to:

  1. Increase outdoor education activities at schools. The DNR works with schools to designate a nearby forest or portion of a schoolyard as an “outdoor classroom.” We also offer professional development to help teachers use their school forest to teach math, language arts, social studies, science, art, music, and physical education.
  2. Improve forest stewardship in schools and communities. The DNR offers site management assistance to ensure every school forest is used long-term.  DNR cooperative and urban foresters guide school forests in important decisions surrounding the establishment, forest health, habitat restoration, harvesting, and planting. School forest sites are often highly visible examples of healthy forests used for education and community recreation.

Questions? Contact the School Forest Program staff.

School forest benefits for students, teachers, and community

A school forest is an outdoor classroom where students learn a variety of subjects and address academic standards. It can become a place that not only enhances an appreciation of natural resources but heightens community pride and involvement. A functioning school forest has positive effects on students, teachers, parents, and the community.

For students, school forests can:

  1. Make lessons more relevant by using meaningful, real-world situations.
  2. Reach students through hands-on learning.
  3. Increase knowledge gain and student achievement.
  4. Reduce student behavior problems.
  5. Provide mentoring opportunities for older students.
  6. Encourage physical activity and improve student health.
  7. Allow students with disabilities frequent, safe contact with the natural world.
  8. Develop young people's innate interest in the natural world.
  9. Foster a sense of ownership and community connection.
  10. Increase creativity, self-esteem, and motivation.
  11. Expose students to local natural resource career possibilities.

For schools and teachers, school forests can:

  1. Meet academic standards.
  2. Increase teacher motivation and enthusiasm.
  3. Allow teachers to try new teaching methods in an outdoor setting.
  4. Allow teachers to interact with students on a different level.
  5. "Green" your school by using sustainable and efficient ways of maintaining school property.
  6. Decrease vandalism and increase school pride.
  7. Receive from the DNR benefits such as: School Forest staff assistance, support mailings, access to the Activity Board, educational materials, newsletters, grant opportunities, Teaching in Your School Forest workshops, admission to the annual conference/summit/regional training, tree cookies, field desks, access to DNR foresters, and woodland stewardship plans.

For families and communities, school forests can:

  1. Strengthen parent-teacher relationships while working toward a common goal.
  2. Provide increased recreation and exploration opportunities.
  3. Create a more environmentally literate population who will make sound, long-term community decisions.
  4. Create a sense of ownership among parents, families, students, and community members.
  5. Engender cooperation between stakeholders.
  6. Involve community members as guest presenters and volunteers while welcoming positive adult role models.
  7. Increase community safety. Studies show that crime decreases as a community spends more time outside in a positive environment.
History of the School Forest Program

Bemidji State University school forest signDr. C.V. Hobson, a former Bemidji State University geography professor and state legislator, is credited with creating the school forest concept. He actively campaigned for the passage of the School Forest Law (MN Statutes, Section 89.41), which authorizes public education institutions to establish and maintain school forests. The Minnesota Legislature passed the law in 1949. One year later, the Blackduck School Forest was designated, marking the first of many schools to enroll in the program.

Since 1949 the program has adapted to meet the needs of Minnesota's schools. Currently there are more than 145 School Forests ranging in size from less than one acre to 300 acres of land, totaling more than 8,000 acres. School forests across the state include sites in rural, suburban, and urban areas; at public and private schools; and reach preschool through university students. No matter the school, all school forests work toward the same goal of connecting students to the natural world while building student confidence, sense of community, skill level, and knowledge base.

Over time, several partners have come to support the School Forest Program by offering lessons, funding, volunteer help, and technical expertise.

Research supporting school forest use

There is a wide variety of research available to support the use of environmental education and outdoor instruction. Research indicates improvement in students' critical thinking, motivation, and achievement in core subject areas, classroom behavior, and more.

The Children & Nature Network has great research summaries and links to full research papers on environmental education and outdoor instruction. They also have infographics to help share information on the benefits of nature including health, academics, play, and physical wellbeing.

childer and nature network logo

The National Wildlife Federation has released various reports that discuss how being outdoors affect children. Topics include children’s well-being, school readiness, and academic performance.

national wildlife federation logo

Environmental Education Week is a program of the National Environmental Education Foundation. Their site features research on the benefits associated with environmental education. (It also includes some great educational materials).

North American Association for Environmental Education has worked with partners and led initiatives to help understand how to practice and communicate about environmental education.

north american association for environmental education logo

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