A while back, forest kindergartens and preschools—like those in Germany and Switzerland—started to make waves in the US and the UK. You can read the links to learn more, but the basic idea is that preschool or kindergarten is held outside. All the time. In all seasons. Kids are outside in nature with no traditional toys, learning about the earth by playing with and in the earth, with adults gently guiding them as need be (or engaging them with a full curriculum).
When we were still living in Sweden, I learned about a new movement based in the United States called Free Forest School, and was intrigued. I immediately searched for a branch in Corvallis, and was disappointed to see that there wasn't one. So after the dust settled from our repatriation, I started a chapter myself.
The motto of Free Forest School (FFS) is Letting kids be kids, outdoors. Simple enough—and that's why I like it. With this particular model, there's no curriculum, there are no adult-imposed lessons or learning. We get outside with our kids, foster and follow their curiosity, and let the trees and the dirt do the rest of the work. We meet in the same location every week, so the kids feel a sense of place and belonging in our particular patch of forest. Some weeks they seem to be bored out of their minds and beg to go home as soon as we start down the trail; some weeks they engage in activities and come home covered in remnants of the forest floor: dirt, moss, blackberry juice, weeds, and burrs.
A typical event looks like this: meet at the trailhead, enjoy a shared snack, then set down the trail to our basecamp. After 5-10 minutes of walking we arrive at our basecamp in the forest, where the kids spread out and explore our little area. The youngest ones stay close to the backpacks and parents, and some of the older kids find a tree stump with exposed roots and play there for a while. We often experiment with building structures, making leaf rubbings, and transferring dirt from place to place. After an hour or so we gather again for some songs and a book, and then we make our way home.
Now, I must be honest here and admit that, at the moment, I do only the bare minimum to keep our local FFS alive. I started the group at the exact same time as I got my real estate broker's license, and if I were to do it all again I would not, in fact, do it all again! It's all a bit much, but that's something for a future post. On particularly energetic days I fantasize about being a more proactive leader and bringing simple activities and learning new songs about the forest and expanding our offerings (we currently have two weekly events, one hosted by me and another by the co-director).
As guilty as I feel about not being or doing more as the local director, I feel great that we get out in the forest every week, that we sit in the quiet of nature, that we have created a small but thriving community of friends. Our terrain is rather difficult—we walk down a forest road then head off the road onto a tiny trail up to a small clearing-type area on a hillside. The ground is covered in downed branches and blackberry brambles, and it's hard going even for the older kids, but especially for the younger ones.
Today, however, Zoë wouldn't let me carry her on our small trail, she insisted on walking from our basecamp back down to the forest road. It was tricky and she fell a few times, but still she wouldn't take my hand. She wanted to do it herself—and she did.
After months of carrying her nearly the whole way every week, she walked the whole thing herself, collecting sticks along the way. I was amazed and a little proud that she had done it, but not nearly as proud as she was. And maybe that's reason enough to go back to the forest every week, even if we're tired, even if it's often inconvenient, even if I have more "important" things to do—because there she is, becoming herself week by week, surrounded by lichens and pines and rain and wind and the gentle, deep quiet of Nature.
All pictures by me.
Every time I post these days (which isn't often, I know), I feel like I'm starting all over. We've gained about a billion* friends since moving to Corvallis and with every post I'm terrified they're all going to find out what a simpleton I am. Oh, and eight views of an abandoned dock.