Classrooms Head Into the Woods

Twenty-first century parents embrace the 19th-century idea of the forest school.


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Friedrich Froebel was born and raised in Germany’s densely wooded Thuringia region, spending much of his childhood outdoors and even apprenticing with a forester as a young teen.

But he went on to become a famous, innovative educator, opening the first kindergarten in 1837, incorporating the then-revolutionary idea that children needed both play and open air to thrive. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the inventor of the concept of “kindergarten,” also pioneered the concept of “forest school,” called, in German, Waldkindergarten.

This idea was not widely accepted at the time, and it wasn’t until the 1950s, when Danish schools rediscovered “forest school” that nature became an approved educator again. “Open-air culture,’’ frulitsliv, is now a standard part of most Danish kids’ early childhood education. German schools embraced Walderkindergarten in the 1990s.

In the U.K., forest school advocates also credit people like Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, and influential early childhood educator Susan Isaacs, who strongly believed, “children want to ‘find out’ about the things in their world — not to be taught, but to discover by searching,” with giving credence to the movement. Forest schools are now common throughout the U.K.

Thoreau and the ’60s “back to nature” campaign notwithstanding, the United States lagged behind. Then came Richard Louv’s influential 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. And in 2007, Erin Kenny founded Cedarsong Nature School on Washington state’s Vashon Island with former student Robin Rogers. In 2008, the two established the pioneering U.S. Forest Kindergarten, based on the Waldkindergarten model, and Kenny’s philosophy, “Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take the walls away,” remains a major inspiration for the growing American forest school movement.

Kenny took her kids into the woods, encouraged them to climb trees, explore creeks, and make art from found materials. She also taught them about edible — and poisonous — plants. Soon, she began training other teachers in what is now known as The Cedarsong Way. In her forest kindergarten model, there is no predetermined curriculum. Lesson plans evolve each day from what’s going on in nature and the children’s interest in it. Inspiring kids’ “sense of awe and wonder about nature while teaching basic environmental and natural science principles” is the goal.

As Richard Louv wrote in Last Child in the Woods, “An environment-based education movement … will help students realize that school isn’t supposed to be a polite form of incarceration, but a portal to the wider world.”

It took only a few years for Bay Area educators to adopt the forest school philosophy and give local children the chance to get hands-on with the outdoors.

Taking her inspiration from the Ohlone people who walked in and nurtured the woods for centuries, Berkeley Forest School founder Liana Chavarin had been teaching preschooolers in Oakland and Berkeley since 2005. In 2012, she opened her own school, where mixed-age classes hear and tell stories, play games, sing, journal, cook, and learn foraging, animal tracking, bushcraft, gardening, and handcrafts, alongside plenty of unstructured play time. Classes meet rain or shine in Berkeley parks, woods, urban farms, community gardens, and orchards.

At Oakland’s Early Ecology, founder Joanna Ferraro is the former director of Esalen Institute’s Gazebo Park Preschool & Infant Toddler Center. There, she had the opportunity to participate in “the most inspiring approach to early education I have witnessed,” which combines mindful communication and ecology education with a play-based curriculum. She uses that inspiration in Early Ecology’s classes in wooded areas around Oakland.

Berkeley’s Emerging Sprouts Forest School offers classes for children as young as 18 months, preschoolers, and slightly older kids, ages 4.5 years to 6 years old. It also offers an after-school program for ages 5-8 from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Students play in water, sand, soil, and mud on a daily basis in locations that include the Berkeley Marina, Blake Garden, and Codornices Park.

Abundant Beginnings’ Forest Freedom School, also in Berkeley, focuses on serving “black, brown and queer families and differently abled students,” offering instruction for ages 0 to 11 in classes rotating through the Lake Merritt Botanical Garden, Sacred Roots Community House, and the redwoods in Joaquin Miller Park.

At Oakland’s IC Community Forest Preschool for ages 3-5, the focus of forest school is to enable students’ inborn curiosity about the natural world and developing their confidence in exploring it. Classes are held at Dimond Park in Oakland. Director Kristina Mundera is a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua and holds a master’s degree in teaching, with an emphasis on critical thinking, social justice, and environmental education.

Tuition costs depend on which program students are enrolled in, and whether they are enrolled full time, part time, or for one of the seasonal camps. Most schools offer sliding-scale or “tuition equity” programs for students from lower-income families.

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