‘Aranyaka Upanishad Forest School’: learning in nature


Krishna: Forest Child

Nestled in an emerald valley and surrounded by ‘deodar’ trees on all sides, is a building in the works – plans for a unique forest school for little children – kindergarten to 2nd grade – of the Mussourie region in Uttarkhand, India.  The key vision of this ‘forest school’  is that learning, at best, is  about creative self-discovery and it happens optimally for children through immersion in, and spontaneous interaction with, a pure natural environment such as a forest. In open spaces like forests, children learn with active engagement and uniquely quickened senses, using all their motor skills and imagination to navigate a web of relationships to each other and to the natural world. They come alive on deeper levels of body and mind and grow in confidence and trust through daily interactions with an open-air world of creative energies and living beings.

‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ Forest School:

The school-house building at ‘Aranyaka Upanishad’ in Mussourie is located a few meters away from a natural forest filled with trees, plants, flowers, and all the magical elements of himalayan hillsides. Here,  plans are that children can gather their  outdoor resources  and venture  into the forest all around guided by teachers and aides who will ensure their safety and serve as facilitators to  active learning sessions in a pristine natural environment.

What are ‘Forest Schools’?

Forest Schools are long term programmes within a natural space, lead by a qualified practitioner. They focus on developing personal, social and emotional life skills through learner led, nature-based learning. Each session includes basic learning in counting, alphabet, story-telling, question-answer, ecology, building rudimentary tools, and organised games. Children are taught to interact with elements of a forest and with each other in constructive and conscious ways. They are taught the values of interdependence, mutual respect, confidence through problem-solving, dialogue, and trust.

Children of Mussoorie:

little goddess

Anshu Kumar – student

Forest: A Place of Enchantment and Natural Learning:

It is our understanding that a forest is a special  environment which provides a magic-world for a child where he or she can forge a genuine connection to the spirit of joy, imagination, and wonder that is an inalienable aspect of our humanity. Awakening this marvellous life-energy that is latent in each child – expressed as curiosity and engagement – can occur far more effectively in open nature than  in a confined space such as an indoor classroom. In open-air natural environments – like forests and hills – children learn spontaneously to breathe deeper, relax, look around at trees, flowers, plants, and all the elements of a forest ecosystem and to interact with genuine wonder. Play and imagination become naturally fused with learning the basics of subjects like mathematics or language or geography and ecology in a context where they are counting leaves on a plant or taking in an alphabet through letters on a piece of living bark or putting twigs together to create geometrical structures that develop spatial-reasoning and depth-perception.

light tree
forest glade

For children, there can be an intuitive sense of connexion with nature that becomes enhanced through active stimulation of all their physical senses – touch, sight, smell, and feeling. This active openness of senses  helps a child to assimilate the elements of learning because they are dealing with living objects in nature rather than abstract concepts in closed spaces. Nature is both a source of endless beauty and of fascination to which a child can respond with natural affinity. The living senses become vehicles of learning through which a child opens in an organic way to the world absorbing its wonders and interacting intimately with them.

Forest School Play-Learning and Creative Imagination: 

Furthermore, a forest environment in which children walk, play, sit on trees, touch them and look around can be evocative to their creative imagination – a source of profound human intelligence. The role of  imagination in self-development, confidence, and problem-solving as been well-established by psychologists and educators and philosophers in recent decades. For children, imagination is an indispensable part of their inner life through which they awaken to their powers of mind. Through story-telling, constructing narratives and images, a child develops a transformative relationship to the world by which raw emotions and strong feelings are changed and cognitively ordered in meaningful ways. The world of a forest can function as a significant place – a symbol – for imaginative interaction through which meaning is spontaneously created and actively constructed by intimate contact with physical nature. This transformation of nature through imagination into meaningful symbol is crucial to self-development because it heralds a shift in consciousness from blind identification to observation and creative exchange.

self-recognition in nature-based artwork

Deep Body/Mind/Spirit Learning:

Playful Enlightenment

Immersed in the beauty of a forest, children can awaken on deeper levels of body/mind/spirit. Their senses are like windows through which natural impressions experienced in fresh air and in natural beauty enter in with a zen-like clarity and are lodged in memory such that they become lodged at cellular levels of somatic awareness. These impressions could last a lifetime, providing a lifetime of recall and an enduring spirit of wonder. Experiences are heightened through first-hand contact and by opening to the thrilling encounter with nature. There is an ‘osmosis’ or exchange on many levels and the forest-world enters into body, mind, and soul.Walking on little paths and trails – feeling the forest-floor under the feet – evokes a natural sense of balance, both physical and mental. Furthermore, learning in an open  forest setting allows for more organic ways of absorbing knowledge through exchange and flow with the environment rather than confinement and isolation in a closed classroom. This reciprocity with the open world allows for a deeper learning at a core level rather than superficially and the foundation of this school is in a notion that immersion in natural settings – forests, in this case –  and allows children to learn at deeper and core levels so that they in fact become what they learn.

madhuban painting
forest sadhu
green tara

A Forest School is an innovative educational approach to outdoor play and learning.”

The philosophy of Forest Schools is to encourage and inspire individuals of any age through positive outdoor experiences.

By participating in engaging, motivating and achievable tasks and activities in a woodland environment each participant has an opportunity to develop intrinsic motivation, sound emotional and social skills. These, through self awareness can be developed to reach personal potential.

Forest Schools across Scandinavia and Europe, including the United Kingdom,  have demonstrated success with children of all ages who visit the same local woodlands on a regular basis and through play, who have the opportunity to learn about the natural environment, how to handle risks and most importantly to use their own initiative to solve problems and co-operate with others. Forest School programmes run throughout the year, for about 36 weeks. We plan to venture daily into an open forest area – cleared specifically for children – with the exception only of extreme weather, rains, snow. Children will :

use full sized tools,

play with each other using sticks and leaves and bark or other forest elements

learn boundaries of behaviour – physical and social – with each other and the forest

establish and grow in confidence, self-esteem.

become self-motivated.

learning to count


 Our Forest School will aim to develop:
  • Self Awareness
  • Self Regulation
  • Intrinsic motivation
  • Empathy
  • Good social communication skills
  • Independence
  • A positive mental attitude, self-esteem and confidence

Forest School, through its application of Accelerated Learning techniques creates a unique learning vehicle that is used to encourage a range of individuals, community groups and larger organisations to utilise their local open space for interactive play, health, recreation and personal development uses.

Children, and more and more, adults need time to thoroughly explore their thoughts, feelings and relationships.
This time and reflective practice develops understanding of the world, the environment and everything within it through the use of emotions, imagination and senses.

mosaic building with stones
tree bark rubbings
weaving organically

What Happens At A Forest School

 Our Forest School is a long term program within a natural space, lead by several qualified practitioners. They focus on developing personal, social and emotional life skills through learner led, nature-based learning.

Our project runs from our own grounds/gardens/playing fields/green-houses  allowing the children to become comfortable with an outdoor approach to education and play whilst in familiar surroundings. Allowing relationships based around trust and self-exploration to develop with the Forest School Leaders who facilitate a more child led outdoor curriculum. The group of teachers have had their introductory sessions in the woodland exploring the site establishing physical and behavioural boundaries. We have established  full regard for safety procedures, hygiene and routines.

The actual project develops through a child led approach with opportunities for projects being taken back to the indoor setting to be continued. Each day includes sessions in the forest – weather permitting – where children learn to observe their natural surroundings, touch and feel textures of the forest, set up a small circle of campsite and begin classes for learning elements of counting, alphabet-learning, and building rudimentary structures, using natural and organic substances like wood, stone, leaves, and bark.

The Forest Schools Site:

Our ‘Forest School’ is deliberately designed to be safe and play-friendly. The site is constructed in a clearing or cleared area of the woodland, this way will keep  children as safe as possible whilst giving opportunities to explore and discover other areas of more dense ground flora, such as brambles and overhead hazards. Children  grow stronger physically, become more balanced and coordinated.

The site ranges in complexity from no fixed features to a fully constructed shelter and fire area with specially designed areas for hygiene, creative art, tool use, fast games, throwing games, water collection, flora monitoring amongst other ideas.

When we began to plan the building of our site, we first created a circle area for seating made from wooden benches to surround a fire pit. Wind breaks around the benches  provide protection from the wind and to create a cozy, enclosed area for a calm time around the fire area. These are fabulous to build with children, no matter how old they are and how they link to every schema one can think of!  Our group shelters  are made from a tarp and tents by putting up winch to pull up a waterproof roof for any downpours and to store kit under. A more permanent construction is imminent and will be more rewarding and appropriate for some groups.
tents for playing
cozy corners in forest playground


Daily class-sessions are designed around a particular child’s natural interests or emerging ‘themes’ that engage them. Many children are passionate about a specific subject area – like ‘house-building’ or ‘artwork’ with forest leaves and sticks and will become intrinsically involved in these areas that ignite their imagination and creativity. ‘Themes’ are sometimes subtle and evolve through exploring the site or more may be more obvious such as dinosaurs, butterflies, fairies, or nature investigators.

Experiences are formulated so they are within the capabilities of every person within the group ( small achievable tasks). Teamwork skills are developed through problem solving, exploring, discovering and developing threads and journeys throughout the days. Individual skills and a sense of self-worth, self-image and self-concept (self-esteem) are heightened throughout the programmes opportunities presented. Now these are always provisions that meet needs of the children or participants and are means to an end, not an end in themselves. And these could include such things as hide & seek, shelter building, tool skills, lighting fires or environmental art; the list is endless. Each experience develops intra and inter-personal skills as well as practical and intellectual skills.

Outdoor Learning and Child Development:

‘Outdoor learning’ is an important new concept in international educational circles. It  is apparent that children see the outdoors not only as spaces full of things, but as places and things with functional meanings. Exposure to nature shows children that environmental features offer certain possibilities.  The elements of a forest, for example, are much more than their physical characteristics and their textures and shape offer potential for imaginative transformations . In this learning process of being immersed in natural settings, children interact with the outdoors almost as a play partner, shaping and transforming it but in turn being shaped by the experiences and interactions it enables too. In essence, the environment is not a space for children to “play in” or “on” but to explore and experiment with . In spite of the ability of the outdoors to promote learning and development, there exist multiple challenges at home and in the communities that limit access to the outdoors.
What is a Forest for children in school?
A forest is a place that gives and receives life. Not just imagined or represented, it is lived in and lived with… People talk about a forest in the same way that they would talk about a person. – a place that is alive, beautiful, nurturing, peaceful. A forest is a living entity with a will toward life. Because of this richness, a forest is a source of deep nourishment for body, mind, and spirit; heart’s ease.
Traditionally, outdoor learning in Scandinavian countries and in Britain has encompassed nature oriented and adventure activities that are primarily undertaken outside school hours. We are inspired by our own Indian heritage of forest schools and have tried to bring their ideas back to life. The current focus on outdoor learning embraces a broader concept of learning that is more integrated into school activities. This evolution is championed in England by the British government which stated that ‘‘there is strong evidence that good quality learning outside the classroom adds much value to classroom learning’’ (Department for Education and Skills, 2006, p. 5). The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted, 2004, p. 2) equally explains that ‘‘outdoor education gives depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students’ physical, personal and social education. ’’Following that, a green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ was issues after a series of consultation with children, young people and families. Then, the ‘Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto’ was launched late 2006 with a vision stating that ‘‘we believe every child and young person should experience the world beyond the classroom as an essential part of their learning and personal development, whatever their age, ability or circumstances’’ (Department for Education and Skills, 2006, p. 2).
Review by ‘House of Commons’ Report in United Kingdom of ‘Forest Schools’:

9. The broad extent of this inquiry has convinced the Committee that outdoor learning can benefit pupils of all ages and can be successful in a variety of settings. We are convinced that out-of-classroom education enriches the curriculum and can improve educational attainment. 

10. Our view of the value of education outside the classroom is supported by research evidence. Ofsted’s recent report, Outdoor education: aspects of good practice, finds that “outdoor education gives depth to the curriculum and makes an important contribution to students’ physical, personal and social education”.[3] The recent Review of Research on Outdoor Learning,[4] published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and King’s College London.