That collective parental cri de coeur you hear any time the notion of summer camps—or, indeed, school in the fall—is raised? It’s real. With many camps cancelled or on hold, and with in-school learning later this year still in limbo at thousands of schools across the country, moms and dads from sea to shining, screaming, bored, ranting and raving sea are desperate for childcare, while kids yearn for something so simple it’s heartbreaking: They want to play with friends.
Enter forest school. What may have once seemed a decidedly back-to-the-land option now seems—at a time when we’re prioritizing outdoor time, open spaces and, more recently and more obviously, social distancing—like a way forward through the impasse.
But what even is forest school? Definitions vary wildly, from accredited programs with clear curriculums to ad hoc groups of parents banding together to loosely supervise groups of kids running wild together outside.
We caught up recently with Sarah Carlson, the founder and director of Brooklyn Nature Days —a forest school founded in Park Slope, Brooklyn (to which, full disclosure, my wife and I have joyously sent our children) in 2014—to answer a few questions about all of this. (Carlson was, of course, outside as we spoke.)
Okay, for starters: What is forest school?
Some people have very strict definitions of a forest school versus another kind of nature-based school or preschool. Frankly, a lot of that is just semantics. (A lot of parents simply breathe easier seeing the word “preschool” in there.) I was trained in an amazing program on Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle, which was very wild and wonderful, and so the notion of “forest school” was always very front and center there—though I got into a thing with one of my instructors—a pioneer who opened up the first forest school kindergarten in the United States—when I told her that I put out nature books for the kids in my program to read. “Forest schools don’t have books,” she said. “Then she told me that I could be a ‘nature preschool.’ And I just said, ‘Okay.’”
I think what it comes down to is that forest school is an outside, child-led, all-weather immersion. You’re teaching kids not so much the intricacies of letters and numbers but larger life experiences—being out in all kinds of weather fosters a certain resiliency; connecting with the earth and various creatures builds empathy, as does connecting with the other people out there with you in a group.
It’s very much child-led: It’s not deciding to teach three-year-olds about dinosaurs because you know that three-year-olds like dinosaurs. We observe the kids and see what they’re actually interested in, and then we build around that.
There’s also the Free Forest School movement where parents come together and take turns leading kids exploring outside, either independently or together as a group. They explore, they have a snack, they come home. You can throw “forest” on anything. Brooklyn Forest School is based on the Waldorf method, but of course they, like us, are in Prospect Park—not exactly a forest, but we make it work for us.
Most importantly, though, we don’t feel we could do what we do if we were inside. The natural environment is where we root ourselves.
And how old are the kids in your school?
Technically, we’re a class, as New York state doesn’t license forest schools per se. But our classes are for age two through five. We also have home school classes and after-school classes. Summer is our biggest season—but March 13 was our last day outside. We’re optimistic and positive for fall, though—with everything we’re finding out about COVID, outdoors is a much safer place to be than indoors. So we’ve had a lot of interest in terms of parents who are taking their kids from what had been planned as inside schools and putting them outside with us.
There’s also a little bit of hope that even if public schools don’t open at full capacity in the fall that we could still be outside in small groups. It’s doable. We already do a lot of things that people are suggesting—the kids have space. In other ways, though, it’s not natural for kids to not want to be near each other. People say, “Well, the kids just can’t touch each other.” It’s heartbreaking. And we still don’t know how we’re going to work out things like that. We’re waiting on the government’s recommendations to help us figure out the way forward.
Are there forest schools for kids older than five or so?
That’s kind of our dream. Our goal is eventually to build it up beyond preschool into an independent elementary school. But yes—there’s a school in Miami that goes up to sixth grade. It can get complicated—whole curriculums have to be written and approved by the state, and people are often afraid to change the curriculum—but it’s not impossible. If you look at Sweden or Denmark or Finland, kids don’t go to what we think of as “school” until they’re six or seven. Forest schools are the norm there. Culturally, though, that’s not really our thing. Hopefully, that can change—particularly for certain kids who learn in a specific way or who have challenges with gross motor skills or attention or sensory issues, this environment helps them feel like they belong and that they’re successful, and I wish there were more opportunities to give that to kids. It’s really a matter of helping people understand what kids are learning when they’re digging something up, or journaling, or birdwatching—you really have to break it down.
What if the kids aren’t particularly interested in the natural world—what if they’re indoor kids at heart?
We don’t just do natural stuff; it’s not just for granola-y nature buffs. Sometimes the kids are into PJ Masks, or they make a superhero cape out of fabric scraps. Maybe they’re a construction crew and they’re building an excavator. Nature always comes first, but we use some tools—hammers, hand drills, buckets. Some kids fill the buckets; some sit on them; some use them with pulley systems. They’re trying to figure out the world with their play, and they have many different kinds of brains and learning styles. One kid may want to know about worms, and another kid wants to build the worms a house; another kid wants to talk about the worm’s mommy; another kid’s always trying to eat the worm. Ultimately, it’s a respect for and a confidence in the children. And it sounds sad, but a lot of our education systems don’t start with that. They feel like children need to know certain things, so we’re going to teach them those certain things to check off that box. It doesn’t honor the child and it doesn’t respect the fact that not every kid takes in information like that. There’s also been a thing happening in more and more standardized schooling called push-down curriculums, where kids are being asked to learn things faster and at a younger and younger age, and often to test to prove it, when in fact it may not be appropriate for either their bodies or their brains. And a test, of course, is only one way to measure a child’s understanding, and not everybody tests well.
Are there any hard and fast rules to forest school, or does the very notion of “rules” not apply?
We have very few rules: Respect for environment, for the teachers, and for the materials we use. I think when certain people think “forest school” they think it’s a free-for-all—it’s actually far from that. We’re teaching them to be capable and in-charge, and when they’re making a choice that’s unkind or unsafe for each other or for other living things, we redirect them in a developmentally appropriate way.
Is there an easy answer to the proverbial white-knuckled parent who wants to know why their kid came home from “school” crying and covered in mud?
It’s very easy to negate what we do—parents instinctively want their kids to come home filled with facts, not covered in mud and screaming because someone took their stick. But the fact is that they’re expressing their feelings; they’re working at conflict resolution; they’re having an intense sensory experience; and they’ve been allowed to be free to get messy. It’s not about knowing the names of the trees; it’s about being thrilled and excited to see trees. One of our kids called a sweetgum tree the “gumball tree.” We’re not going to correct that. They’re affectionate toward the tree; they’re protecting it; they’re collecting the sweetgum pods; they’re inventing fishing games with sticks and yarn that picks up the sticky sweetgum pods. All of that’s a valuable experience. And, yeah, it takes a ton of energy. There’s a lot of gentle correcting that goes on: “Spiders are not for eating;” “I need you to take your toes out of her hair and put your shoes back on—I hear that you’re a monkey, but. . .”
But the bigger things that parents want: Confidence, empathy, a respect for others; an ability to stand up for yourself and speak your mind even if people don’t agree with you; the ability to work in a group and to solve conflicts and to focus—these are the skills that are going to make them more successful as they grow and learn. We want them to understand that they have power and they have choices.
Have you been noticing an uptick in interest lately—even aside from COVID-related desperation?
Absolutely—though I should note that the broad notion of forest school isn’t a new thing: Scandinavia, more and more of Europe, Australia and New Zealand, and the West Coast have been seeing more and more forest schools every year.
At the same time, it’s not something that’s easily quantified, which is something that we all naturally want to see regarding our children. It’s an investment—but you’re not necessarily going to see the return on that investment the very same day. It’s a very organic way of learning, and it’s very difficult in our society to be simple. We live at a time when you pay somebody to take your phone away for a weekend so you don’t look at it. But there’s value in lying on the ground and staring up at the clouds. And my hope is that they keep understanding that value, and that they can come back to that—it’s about taking care of yourself; it’s meditative; it’s about curiosity; it’s artistic. Unfortunately, we’re living in a society where parents feel an enormous pressure to make sure their kids are learning the right things, and we often feel we have to offer more and teach more—but little brains sometimes can’t take in all that information. Sometimes lying in the grass and staring at the clouds is exactly what kids need.