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7 Questions & Answers About Opening a Forest School

Like any new business idea, opening a forest school is simultaneously exciting and scary! No matter how long you’ve been scheming about this, you undoubtedly have a lot of questions you need to answer as you begin this process.

Wonderschool offers training and cohorts for everything you need to know about starting a forest school. Click on this link to get started in opening up a nature-based program.

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Do I Need a Child Care License?

In almost all 50 states, forest schools are operating in a bit of a gray area when it comes to child care licensing. Washington state is the exception, which began piloting licensing for outdoor preschools in 2017. Additionally, Oregon has begun to implement a registration process for outdoor education programs. It can be expected that other states may begin to follow suit, but how quickly that will happen is unknown.

While your program may be unlicensed, there are steps you can take to ensure safe practices are being implemented. For example, ensuring that you and any other staff members have completed background checks, pediatric first aid and CPR certification, and mandatory reporter training are foundational to any child care setting, and signal to parents that you take your work seriously.

Additionally, you may choose to enroll in an outdoor certification program. All parents want their children to be in a safe and loving environment, with qualified and nurturing staff. Things like coursework in ECE / child development, and certifications in outdoor learning show parents that you will be a trustworthy and knowledgeable care provider for their little ones.


Do I Need a Business License for my Forest School?

This question, unfortunately, does not have an easy or universal answer. Business license requirements vary greatly from state to state, city to city, and county to county. Your best bet is to check in with your local Small Business Association to find out what rules and regulations you need to follow.


Do I Need Permission to Run it at a Park?

Again, this question is going to vary depending on your location. Many parks do require you to get a permit to use their space for an outdoor program. Some might even charge you a fee. Part of your research process in choosing your location will necessarily include gathering and comparing the different requirements, permissions, and fees needed for outdoor sites. The variance in permissions might be the deciding factor for where you will run your program.


What Ages Should I Enroll?

There is no hard and fast rule for how old a child must be to enroll in an outdoor preschool program or forest school. Your background and experience will probably play a big role in what ages you feel comfortable enrolling, but there are some other things to take into consideration.

  • Potty training: Potty training can be tricky in an outdoor setting. It’s not impossible. But it might not be ideal. Rather than a specific age, sometimes forest programs require children to already be potty trained to enroll. Other programs make use of small portable potties to support potty training wherever they are. It comes down to your comfort and experience.
  • Span of ages: Mixed age environments are wonderful and provide a lot of benefits for children. Being outdoors can make a very wide span of ages trickier, especially depending on how many staff you have each day. If your hope is to spend a portion of each day hiking and exploring, it might be unrealistic to expect toddlers to keep up. If you have enough staff where someone can stay with the younger ones, while someone explores a bit further with the older children you can probably make it work.
  • Nap time: Forest schools handle nap and quiet time differently. Some are only half day programs, so the kids can go home and nap in the afternoon. Others have quiet time right outside in the woods, park, or beach space. Think about your community and the families who live there and what their needs are. Initially you might be making a guess, but as you start to market your program, pay attention to the questions and requests your interested parents have. You may discover your assumptions about the kind of care they are looking for are wrong, and you need to adapt your program accordingly.


Do I Need Insurance?

Insurance is not currently required for outdoor programs. That said, it’s probably a good idea to have it. Insurance protects you and the families in your care should an accident occur. You will want to consider general liability insurance for your forest school, as well as worker’s compensation insurance for your staff.


How Do I Get Insurance?

There are a variety of sports/camp insurance brokers to select from, and many workers comp options exist within different payroll providers. If you are a Wonderschool member, you can tap into our network of vetted brokers and take advantage of our group rates.


Can I Transport Kids From One Place to Another?

This will be a decision you need to make for yourself, and if you do decide to transport children you’ll need auto insurance, explicit parent permission, and a detailed communication plan to share with families in addition to the above insurance recommendations.

With or without a pandemic, outdoor preschool programs have so many benefits for young children. Throughout Covid-19 we’ve seen a dramatic increase in parent interest in these programs because of the recorded safety benefits of being outside. While things may one day return to “normal,” now might be the perfect time to start that forest school you’ve always been dreaming about.

Join Wonderschool today and get your outdoor program off the ground.

Meredith Downing

Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.