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Learning about Forests (LEAF)

23 years of outdoor learning, using nature as a classroom.

Learning about Forests advocates outdoor learning and hands-on experiences which result in the students getting a deeper and more involved understanding of the natural world. While the focus of the LEAF programme is on forest ecosystems, the skills and knowledge acquired can be applied to any natural environment.

HundrED 2024


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Target group
Students lower
September 2023
LEAF brings children closer to nature, providing them with the direct exposure that is essential for their healthy development, physical, and emotional well-being. We must empower and educate children to become stewards of the environment. By providing them with opportunities to experience and connect with the outdoors, we can instil in them deep appreciation and respect for the natural world.

About the innovation

Why did you create this innovation?

The LEAF programme rests on the belief that children need to experience nature for themselves and society as a whole. Over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, strengthening the need to connect with nature. A growing body of research in the education field suggests that outdoor learning has many benefits on an educational level and fosters students' personal development.

What does your innovation look like in practice?

The LEAF programme has the potential to transform the quality of education by engaging children in wholesome experiences instead of sedentary and unidirectional classroom teaching and learning. Working outdoors along with others also helps build interpersonal and social skills that are being challenged with the advent of technology and increasing screen time. If well-designed, outdoor actions can build strong linkages with the community and help young people experience altruistic community service and active citizenship.

LEAF encourages environmental education through awareness-raising among students, teachers, and the wider community. It instils in students a sense of ownership of their natural surroundings, rekindling in them the wonderment that ecosystems evoke and reminding them of the vital role the environment and nature play in our lives. By engaging in outdoor activities, children develop a sense of responsibility for the environment and a desire to protect it.

How has it been spreading?

The Learning about Forests (LEAF) programme is currently being implemented in 28 countries with more than 694,600 students and 20,700 teachers involved. The outdoor education programme reaches 3,833 schools and has resulted in the planting of 38,780 trees in 2022 and a monthly average of 74 hours dedicated to outdoor learning.

At the Foundation for Environmental Education, we would like to keep supporting the programme's implementation worldwide, while sharing and creating educational and training resources for students and teachers. We are aware, that some teachers lack the confidence to take students outside the classroom and for this reason, the LEAF network aims to keep on providing and sharing inspirational resources, training, and good practices.

If I want to try it, what should I do?

To engage with the LEAF programme, a school should first register with a LEAF National Operator. In countries without a LEAF National Operator, International Schools can apply to join the programme through the FEE Head Office. You can check if your country has a National Operator at: www.leaf.global/national-offices.

Impact & scalability

Impact & Scalability

The LEAF program sees nature as a classroom. This innovation fosters education for Sustainable Development with a project-based and real world learning approach. LEAF has scaled to more than 25 countries already and has the potential to keep growing as the climate crisis is a global challenge that requires collective solutions that start with education.

HundrED Academy Reviews
The program provides experiential learning for young people which usually has longer lasting educational outcomes. Exposing young people to the natural environment can foster a deeper sense of connection to the world and global citizenship.
By collaborating with national operators, LEAF is valuable in a global matter. It is a way to explore your surroundings and take care of and learn about nature, which is possible and necessary in each and every context.
- Academy member
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The first Tiny Forest in the Netherlands was planted in December 2015. Since then, the IVN’s team has planted 185 Tiny Forests in public spaces throughout the country. The Tiny Forest success has inspired other countries running LEAF to adopt similar initiatives to promote ecosystem restoration and environmental education for schools. One such project is TEREZA's 'Školní les do kapsy' in Czechia.
An Choill Bheag is a small, dense, biodiverse native woodland habitat planted on school, business, or community grounds. LEAF Ireland has planted twenty 'little woodlands' to date (approximately 3,350 trees). Activities around these ‘little woodlands’ have involved over 2,000 individuals from 11 primary schools, six secondary schools, a Teacher Training 3rd Level College and two community groups.
Outdoor play and outdoor experiences (Slovenia)
In the kindergarten Velenje, students spend a lot of time in nature. There are lots of opportunities out in the forest, which enable children to train many new skills, develop physical abilities and practice nature observation. Children have created forest playrooms, gymnasiums, camps, homes and houses. Small ones for dwarfs and fairies, some bigger ones for us and big ones, just in case the little mole Ligi joins!With some clear rules set up, playing zones have been designed. The forest playing rooms offered endless possibilities for imaginary games. And there's no place like imagination, where dwarfs, fairies, unicorns and other creatures can join children while they play. In the forest, children were able to pick up different materials and forest products each time. From these materials, real forest pictures and sculptures were made. In each visit to the forest, children were encouraged to use all their senses; observe the tall trees, listen to the birds singing, the rustling of leaves, touching the tree bark, hugging trees as well as all their friends! A sensory path was created with some of the forest products children collected, sometimes, children even walked through the forest barefoot.“We are too rarely aware that the forest is a teacher that can teach children more if we enter it open-minded, experience it in silence, by observing, listening, touching, or if we just let ourselves to SIMPLY BE in the forest. Only in such a way, will children experience the peace, joy and love that they deserve. They will enter it unobtrusively, respectfully, which for sure also is what the forest deserves.” I still remember When we went to the forest playroom, one of the students said very loudly: “ I love the forest!Maruša Kozman and preschool teachers of kindergarten VelenjeChildren also got to visit a carpenter to create wood pieces for the forest playrooms. The carpenter presented them with his work and showed them how to make a wooden crate. After having met the carpenter, children even gave up themselves to some carpenting. The children highly enjoyed grinding, constructing, glueing and sawing the wood. Hardly anyone cared about the hurt fingers while hammering nails and the pain, they were so proud of themselves and their success!The forest was also used as a math classroom. The children compared sticks, cones, different forest fruits, they observed trees, got to know forms, sorting, counting, stringing, comparing. They had real fun! In the forest gymnasium, forest ranges were created and physical activities were carried out. The forest is not always silent, there are different sounds coming from it. In the forest, sometimes students find materials which serve them to perform all kinds of music such as playing the drums!The children got the idea that our forest is protected by a very special creature. Together with the children, we believe as well, so that it will remain a clean and magical place also in the future. We will return to nature in future to continue to explore, get to know new things, discover and ensure that the forest remains our priceless experience, shelter and a warm home.
Growing Better Together (South Africa)
Stanger is a town in KwaZulu-Natal, located inland from Blythedale in the midst of sugarcane fields, and is part of the Zulu Heritage Route and the Sugar Route. However, the area is afflicted with poverty and high youth unemployment, which has led to an increase in the crime rate. Stanger Training Centre was established 35 years ago and is a facility that takes care of and educates children 6-18 years old, who are severely intellectually impaired with down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and epilepsy. The centre has a total of 252 children who attend the school, where environmental education is a part of the curriculum. The school was registered as a LEAF school in 2019 to expand its ongoing projects and gain a better understanding of its local environment. Through their participation in the programme, the school developed its own indigenous biodiversity garden - one which helped enhance students’ opportunity for creativity and connection to nature, which consequently stimulated their curiosity. Various tree-planting sessions took place, with outdoor biodiversity lessons revolving around the value of trees and their importance to conserve nature and sustain healthy school grounds. Students gained leadership skills and self-confidence. They gained a deeper understanding of the value of their surroundings and human interactions with the environment and were able to solve local sustainability challenges by increasing native biodiversity. "The garden was turned into something special: an outdoor classroom where students and teachers can look, observe, learn and flourish."Cindy-Lee Cloete, LEAF South Africa National OperatorThe project exposed students to the natural environment and outdoor education experiences. Giving them a chance to experience nature instilled a sense of responsibility and provided a different and beneficial brain stimulation. The natural experience provided students with meaningful opportunities for discovery, creativity, problem-solving, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Spending time outdoors, interacting with the natural environment allowed children to learn by doing and experimenting with ideas. Learners gained new knowledge and curiosity and were inspired to start taking care of their local nature and school grounds. “The positive impacts of this project will be felt for years to come” Principal MR KP Hira
A Nesting Forest in your neighbourhood (Belgium)
A Nesting forest or Nestlebos is built in a forest. Ideally, a Nestelbos is very varied: water features, open terrain, dense forest, etc. Located in a forest, a place in the middle of nature that is spacious but demarcated, so that the children can experiment and move freely from one ‘nest’ to the other. Here children can play, romp, relax, but always with respect for nature. Where necessary, additional plants and trees are planted, a wasteland can be turned into a tiny forest, and invasive exotic species if necessary are removed. Working in a Nestelbos means that you have to take care of it. Care for nature, but also ensure that the forest is resistant to the effects of climate change. Where possible, children look to make certain choices in planting shrubs or trees. In addition, during the warm periods, while the streets, squares and the often still concrete playgrounds can be really hot in the summer, children enjoy the shade in the forest, or the sun shining through the trees. Depending on the location and accessibility, people from the neighbourhood or residential care centres can also be involved. By building this bond with nature, children/youngsters realise just how important it is to protect forests. Where necessary, additional plants and trees are planted, a wasteland can be turned into a tiny forest, invasive exotic species are tackled if necessary. “There was a child, a 6-year-old refugee, who had only just arrived in our country. In class she was always withdrawn, she made little contact. However, she found an owl's cape in the Bellenbos. When she put it on, she changed: she flew around the whole forest, made contact with everyone, it was really beautiful to see.”Caroline Bosteels, LEAF Netherlands Coordinator"Nesting Forests" project provides an opportunity to reconnect with nature as a classroom and that too regularly. The teachers can observe, join the students in the play and offer the children the freedom to discover themselves. In Bellenbos which is 0.6 Ha. in the area, there is a stream and a water hole, which makes this place even more valuable. Students planted over 670 saplings to make it even more greener. One can look for aquatic life, experiment with the current, etc. In the process of discovering the place and participating in activities, the children not only learn to respect nature and its beings, but also each other, which ultimately builds their social skills through playing and working and dealing with conflict together. Children’s curiosity allows them to look for possible solutions, where trial and error are possible and a ‘must’. Children also learn to deal with their thoughts, behaviour and emotions to be able to control them more effectively. Playing and learning in the forest also gives an extra boost to the sensory and motor development that is so much needed throughout our digital age.Children, to the surprise of their teacher, bloomed in the forest, making contact with other children, creating goals for their daily lives connected to the forest. Children developed skills of resilience, respect for one another, problem-solving, and self-management. Caroline Bosteels reflects on her experience, “as a kindergarten teacher with more than 10 years of experience, I wanted children to reconnect with nature, and offer them a place where they can fully experiment, explore, learn through play or find peace where necessary. After all, this is what children need, but unfortunately often do not find in regular education. From that idea arose the ‘Nesting Forests (Nestelbossen)”. In different places in the forest, which can also be called ‘nests’, children can develop various skills in playful ways: building and carpentry, working with mud, making music, playing theatre, and developing their interests and qualities. In Affligem, Belgium, the first educational ‘Nesting Forest’ was created, called Bellenbos, and consequently, more nesting forests were created across Belgium, with the idea that every child can play freely and can find calamity and peace in a forest nearby, with their families, or with their class. "If you are sad and you come to the Bellenbos, you will soon be happy again!" Student, 10 years old

Implementation steps

Look & Observe
At the heart of any LEAF project there is a problem to investigate or a question to explore that creates a need to know something and then use that knowledge to resolve an issue. By looking and observing, students are encouraged to identify the question they want answers to!

Seeking information, exploring an issue and planning how to solve it connects to active learning. It leads to an inquiry process where students need to identify the tools that will help them solve a problem, be it asking the right questions, finding answers, resources, or engaging the right people. During this step, the most important in the LEAF pedagogical cycle, two actions shall take place:

  1. A research component shall be incorporated to address connection to nature, or levels of awareness about forests. Create your mini-research project! Check out the LEAF themes further down and choose one to explore.
  2. An educational plan should be in place, which will propose and implement actions that help raise awareness about forests and the chosen LEAF Theme, a plan that connects to the school curriculum. Stimulate activities that help reach the learning objectives of LEAF (find below). See ‘Our Resources’ section on the LEAF website for activity guides on how to, e.g., plant trees, map habitats in an area or identify minibeasts, or align your activities with the several LEAF campaigns.


Students start to understand the intricate web of life and how we need to balance our footprint and handprint to live sustainably. Monitor and report progress on your research to show increased levels of awareness, changes in behaviour or records of species, and reflect on the progress of your educational plan.


Involve others to spread the LEAF message throughout the whole school and the wider community. Integrate the LEAF programme with the curriculum work of the school, when and where possible. Organise days of Outdoor Actions that engage students in field studies, trips, conservation action, community service, social learning, etc.

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