Imagine if you could give your kiddo the kind of childhood playtime you experienced! Now you can unplug, step away from the toys and technology and embrace nature: climb trees, splash in puddles, study bugs, build fairy houses, watch ants at work––all at a Free Forest School event your little ones are sure to love. Free Forest School has just taken root in San Diego and we sat down with the co-director Sandy Algra to learn all about this fantastic opportunity to immerse kids in nature for child-led play. Read on to see how the sky’s the limit in Mother Nature’s outdoor classroom!

What is Free Forest School?

Free Forest School of San Diego is a free, cooperative, volunteer-run group where kids ages 0-6 and their parents or caregivers meet on a weekly basis in wilderness areas around the San Diego area to explore and play together in nature.

Free Forest School groups are welcoming, non-judgmental communities in which parents and caregivers can practice giving children space and autonomy to explore and create in nature.

How are Free Forest School meet-up sites chosen in San Diego, which is known for being a beach town?

Co-Director of Free Forest School of San Diego, Sandy Algra told Red Tricycle that they hope to show families that there’s plenty of nature to experience in addition to coastal nature.

Tecolote Canyon Natural Park was selected as the site for their first event. Algra explained that events are hosted at a single location for a minimum of ten weeks so kids can develop familiarity with the location. Hosp Grove Park East has also been selected as a meet-up location and the Co-Directors are considering holding future events at Marian Bear, Mission Trails, the nature exploration area near Morley Field and even at the dunes in Coronado of which Algra shared, “though manmade, they offer lots of great space for child-led play and exploration without being too close to the water for safety reasons.

“Pop-up” one time events will also be added to the schedule on occasion, at tidepools and other nature locales.

What takes place during a Free Forest School Event?

Little nature lovers share a snack, sing an introduction song, take a hike, play in the woods and have circle time with stories and songs. There’s no “prescribed goal” since having the kids play is the most important part. The events are meant to be easygoing and all about what sparks the kids’ interests. Parents and caregivers get a chance to unplug and step back while the kids and their imaginations take the lead!

What You Need to Know Before You Venture Out

As you head into nature, be sure to leave behind toys, strollers and phones. The Free Forest School operates under the notion of the “lightest touch.” This means that parents shouldn’t be involved at all unless safety is concerned. Algra explained that there should be minimal “no don’t, we can’t” interference from parents so you can bear witness to the amazing things kids choose to do when left on their own. Algra says splashing in mud puddles is popular, as are building ant houses and fairy houses and climbing trees.

Sticks, rocks and leaves end up becoming the kids’ “toys.” Strollers aren’t allowed because they’re not child-led. Restricted phone use is also vital. Group leaders designate a “photographer” for each event so only one adult has their phone out. Algra states, “We do not want other parents on their phones at all, except in emergencies.”

Also good to know, Algra offers, “Another important factor about Free Forest School is that it’s inclusive and non-judgmental. You don’t have to bring organic, homemade snacks, you’re not expected to be decked out in field gear, you don’t have to know the names of the native plants. We just want families to get outside and enjoy the beauty of San Diego.”

Before you go to a Free Forest School event, you must sign a waiver (only once).


You may also want to read the FAQs on Free Forest School here before you head out.

Nurture a Love of Nature

Whether you and your kids are nature lovers or not, Free Forest School is a great experience. Algra shares, “You don’t have to be a nature lover yourself to have a positive outcome with Free Forest School. I don’t consider myself to be super nature oriented, but I have no problem watching my kids play in the mud, climb trees, look for bugs… they get so much out of just being left alone to play with other kids outside without toys or playground equipment or parents or phones.”

Where can I take my kiddo to Free Forest School in San Diego?

Free Forest School events are free and all families are welcome.

Currently there are two Free Forest School meet-ups in San Diego: one is at Hosp Grove Park East and the other is at Tecolote Natural Park.

Join Free Forest School of San Diego on Facebook here, where you’ll learn about new events and pop-ups and may sign-up to attend an event.


Will you be heading into the great outdoors with the Free Forest School of San Diego? Share in the comments!

––Beth Shea

All images courtesy of Free Forest School of San Diego.


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