What is an urban school forest?

students moving tree trucks so they can sitt on them.

A school forest is considered “urban” when it is located in an area where a lot of people live. While the Twin Cities, Duluth, and Rochester come to mind, land-locked sites in small towns can also face challenges similar to urban sites.

Urban school forests tend to be…

  • Smaller than 20 acres, even less than 1 acre.
  • Overgrown with invasive species.
  • Used by local residents and dog-walkers.
  • Also used to support school or community gardens.
  • Located near the school building.

Characteristics of urban school forests


Determine the risks and hazards on your site. Remove hazardous litter such as barbed wire, broken glass, rusted metal, or needles with help from adult volunteers. If you have poison ivy, ask a natural resources professional about how to get rid of it. Allow students to remove “safe” litter. If you are unsure of specific risks at your site, contact the School Forest staff and/or your local law enforcement.


Even a few trees can give students a base from which to do activities. Students can journal, measure, observe, and enhance the natural features on in their school forest. Students can also search for clues to the site’s cultural and natural past. See the School Forest Activity Board for ideas.


Urban sites may be less ecologically diverse, having only a few trees, few species of trees, and little to no shrubs or understory. School forests can get free seedlings from the State Forest Nursery. Consult your stewardship plan, contact your DNR forester, and tell him or her your ideas for planting on the site.

Larger saplings that come in containers are often more appropriate that bare-root seedlings on small sites. Containerized trees can generate shade and wind protection in a few years. Ask the local SWCD, county sales, Minnesota Tree Trust, local nurseries. Ask for donations. Offer to advertise the name of the nursery on a sign posted near the tree.


Management depends on who owns the site. Some urban forests are owned and managed by a non-school landowner such as the city, county, or private landowner. Other urban school forests are mowed and maintained by your facilities personnel or district grounds staff.

Enlist help by inviting the city facilities supervisor, school ground staff, or private landowner to school forest committee meetings. You can also send them positive notes about what students are doing outdoors and thank them for their service whether it’s mowing trails, taking care of newly planted seedlings, or removing downed branches. Grounds staff who feel appreciated have been known to take pride in how they mow summer trails, pack winter trails, remove hazardous branches, report vandalism, water plants in the summer, and pile snow mounds strategically for winter play.

Neighbors, parent groups, scout troops, and volunteer organizations such as the local Kiwanis or Lions Club will often help too. But you need to ask! Getting help and funding.

Diverse users

map of known range of oak wilt

A bird feeder in a native prairie
garden outside Cedar Park
School Forest, Apple Valley.

Anyone whom the landowner allows can and do use school forests, such as hikers, bird watchers, families, dog-walkers, or frisbee golf players. Schools should make sure users know that they are using an outdoor classroom and leave it the way they found it: safe, clean, and unharmed. Signs can go a long way to educate the public.


A benefit of being in an urban area is having lots of neighbors. Your school forest committee can generate allyship by simply telling nearby neighbors that the site has been designated as a school forest for education. Ask neighbors if they are willing to tell you or the police if they see inappropriate use in the forest. Remove litter and graffiti as soon as possible, because a little trash can attract a lot of trash. Always report vandalism and illegal dumping to local law enforcement. Again, Signs can go a long way to educate the public.


Developing an urban school forest

map of known range of oak wilt

Logs for seating and a whiteboard posted
on an exterior wall create an outdoor classroom
space at Garlough School Forest in West St. Paul.

Tips for landscaping schoolyards and smaller school forests.

  1. Ask the students what they’d like to have in their school forest. Whether they ask for a fairy garden or a zipline, pay attention to the themes they are sharing. For example, a request for a fairy garden may be about wanting a quiet place for creative imagination, while a request for a zipline may be about wanting a safe area for practicing physical risks. While you won’t be able to install their every dream, sketch out a plan for your site. Designate outdoor areas for different functions as you would rooms in a house. Ideas for outdoor “rooms” in a schoolyard or small school forest include:
    1. Quiet study/imagination area (nestled in pines, single seats, hammock trees, etc.)
    2. Food area (fruit trees and shrubs)
    3. Large motor skills play area (logs, boulders, hills, poles for making forts, etc.)
    4. Classroom seating area (sitting logs or benches in rows, outdoor whiteboard)
    5. Weather station area (wind sock, weather vane, rain gauge, thermometer, sundial, etc.)
    6. Water study area (near a raingarden or snow collection area)
    7. Run-around area (open area with a few large trees)
    8. Wildlife monitoring area (wildlife-friendly shrubs, feeders, trail camera, etc.)
    9. Arboretum area (a variety of planted and labeled trees and shrubs)
    10. Outdoor tools storage area
  2. Share your plan with school leadership, explaining why each feature is important. Expect to discuss cost and maintenance.
  3. When implementing your plan, START with the big items and work your way down. For example, install hardscape (e.g., arbors, paved areas, shelters, etc.) first. Then plant trees. Then shrubs. Then plants.
  4. map of known range of oak wilt

    A teacher and his 4th grade class in the
    Marydale Park School Forest in St. Paul.

    Plan for teacher comfort too. Adults are more likely to bring students outdoors to play and learn when the outdoor area has:
    1. Good sightlines to see children at all times.
    2. A place to sit, such as at a picnic table.
    3. Shade and protection from strong winds.
    4. A sturdy table on which to place activity supplies.
  5. Work with a landscape architect if possible.
  6. Older students can practice landscape design using iTree (from U.S. Forest Service). iTree is an online design tool that lets students assess tree benefits in a schoolyard setting, such as how trees mitigate carbon dioxide, air pollution, stormwater, and energy bills.
  7. Don’t do everything yourself! Getting help and funding

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