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HEADING TO THE FOREST: Bringing Joy, Accomplishment & Hope to Children

About the Author

David Sobel is a Professor Emeritus in the Education Department at Antioch University New England in Keene, NH and he consults and speaks widely on child development and place-based education with schools, environmental organizations and the National Park Service. He has authored eight books and more than 70 articles focused on children and nature for educators, parents, environmentalists and school administrators in the last 30 years.

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This is the second installment of a two-part series.

In the first part of this article, we visited a nature-based early childhood program in a forest preserve on the western edge of Chicagoland. Here, children found treasure, became pirates, engineered a raft/bridge and adventured for long distances in the winter woods.

In this part, we’ll head both east and west—to public schools in northern New England and to a predominantly Latino community in the Boulder County, Colorado community of Lafayette.

Forest Days in Public Schools

A similar kind of surprising naturalized innovation is happening in the public school kindergarten classrooms in Vermont and New Hampshire. Understanding the strictures of public school education, but thinking that one-day-a-week wasn’t too much to ask, kindergarten teacher Eliza Minnucci and her colleague Meg Teachout initiated a Forest Day program in her Ottauquechee Vermont public school in 2013. 

They meandered up into the forest behind the school where they created a forest classroom with a fire pit (approved by the local fire department) and constructed a shelter for backpacks and equipment, a pit toilet, and out-of-the-rain spaces for really rainy days. They committed to most of one full day a week in the woods, followed by an hour back in the classroom to document their learning. Jennifer Newberry and Ashley Morse did the same thing, the same year, down the road in Norwich, Vermont. From these two starting points, the one-day-a-week in the woods program has spread like mycelium throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, Massachusetts, into New York, hopscotched across the country to downtown Philadelphia, headed toward suburban Wisconsin, even to the Scandinavian School in Jersey City, New Jersey.

During a typical public school kindergarten Forest Day, there’s fort-building, firewood-collecting, tree-climbing, belly-sliding, animal tracking, fox and geese playing and Pooh sticks. Literacy and math aren’t thrown out the window. Instead, letter making with sticks, acorn gathering and counting, following apple crisp recipes, and doing science experiments all lead to the enhancement of the core curriculum. Children are learning their letters and numbers and getting stronger and healthier. It’s a win-win situation.

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Moseying up the trail, across the little stream, on a soft April morning, we come upon the children in a sun-dappled kindergarten classroom. These children have been doing this all year, so the routines and rituals of the day are set, they know the boundaries and the landscape and are used to pooping and peeing in the woods.

Here’s how the day unfolds: (For a fuller description, see The Forest Days Handbook: Program Design for School Days Outside by Eliza Minnucci and Meg Teachout, published by Antioch University New England and Green Writer’s Press)

The walk up the hill ‘neath the just-leafing-out maples, hemlocks and oaks, is way easier than when the children had to negotiate the icy slope, sometimes on their hands and knees. The children find their way with little prompting to their sit-spots—solitary nooks nestled into the roots of a hemlock, perched on a rock with a good view, on a mossy patch under a pine. They now spend twenty minutes, sitting quietly, observing the new trout lily that has unfurled, listening to the songs of ovenbirds and blue jays. Some bring their journals and colored pencils to record their findings.

At morning meeting, a few children share their journals. They greet each other and talk about the red maple flowers littering the forest floor or the salamander that was sitting on their moss patch when they arrived, or the chickadee that hopped onto their foot because they were sitting oh-so-still.

A teacher initiates a game of Disappear. She closes her eyes and counts to four. All the children hide. 

“She opens her eyes and calls out who can be seen from her stationary vantage point. Then, when she calls “Pop!” those still hidden jump out from behind trees and stumps, shocking us with how well hidden they were while being still so close. Our students have learned to be woodland animals capable of scampering out of sight at a moments’ notice, aware of the teacher’s perspective, as well as the space taken up by their own bodies.”

At the end of the meeting, before checking the thermometer, the children predict the temperature. Most are within five degrees of being right, showing a year’s worth of science/math learning.

The next period in the routine is free play for up to an hour. This time of year many children migrate to the stream to either clear the water’s path (with my own children, I called this stream-grooming) or damming the stream to make pools and waterfalls. A few children, with a teacher, mix up dough, and then throughout the playtime, all students visit the fire to roast their own stick bread.

After play time, children return from forest play for a snack of stickbread and fruit salad eaten with muddy fingers. Did you know that there’s a bacteria in mud that some scientists think makes us smarter and healthier?

To balance the child-directed play, the next session is teacher-directed stations, academic projects or lessons.   Today, “the kindergarteners are working on a unit about identifying and using tools of measurement. In one station, we make our own balance scales with short boards and logs. Pairs of students work together first to collect items to be weighed, then to make a balanced scale, and lastly to experiment with different found items. Weight, they discover, is not always in a direct relationship with size, and they work to balance a large rock on one side, with sticks on the other. Soon they eagerly try to find things equal to their own weight.

Or the children work with stopwatches to see how far they can travel in 10 seconds doing different kinds of movement—crawling, skipping, running, slithering. They notice that crawling gets them further than slithering.   Why is that?

Lunch ensues. They’re all thankful that the leaves provide some shade, as the sun gets higher. A teacher reads aloud another Old Mother West Wind story, and then the children have to tell it back—practicing sequencing, recall of details, public speaking. Children talk comfortably in small groups about the inchworm they found, how many rocks they needed to collect to equal their own weight, the tick they found crawling on their pants and squished with their fingernails. 

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There’s another short play period after lunch. The teachers languish in the woods, delaying the return to the classroom. After a winter’s worth of rigor, the spring woods are amiable, comfy and carefree. Why rush? But then it’s time. The teachers sing the children back together, the fire is doused, they trundle downhill to the classroom where the children partner up for tick checks.   

“They part each other’s hair in a giggling ritual, body-tired and heart-full from a warm day in the woods.” In a circle the children recall the events of the day as the teachers write a blog post, along with iPhone pictures, to educate parents and community members about all the learning that has happened that day.

The teachers know that they’ve created a good balance of work and play, solitariness and collaboration, literacy and numeracy, risk and reward, but the secret ingredient is something more.

“But why we take our students to the woods is best summarized by one word: joy. Not the flat ease of playing video games or the brief giddiness of unwrapping candy, but the deep joyfulness of toes-in-mud, creature-in-hand, leap-over-roots and sunshine-on-cheeks.

“The joy of accomplishment, the joy of wonder, the joy of settling cozily in your small place within a big world. We want to give this joy to our children, and so we head to the forest.”

What do parents think about this? Mostly, they’re pleased as punch. One mother/school board member from a nearby school said, “Personally, I’m really excited about this program. I love the outdoors. I love nature. I don’t care how dirty my kids get and I kind of believe, the dirtier they are the better.”  Another grandfather said, “He’s very high energy. I think being outside is great for him. He’s one of those kids, he’s hands-on…I hear more about stuff that goes on here on this one (forest) day, than I hear about anything that goes on in the classroom.”

And then there are the children who start out not wanting to get dirty or cold and wet.  Another mom remarked,

“I was concerned about this program because my daughter had zero interest in nature when the school year was starting. But we’re Vermonters so all we have is the outdoors, so to have a kid who didn’t want to go outdoors was a bummer. But now she will look at us and she’ll say, ‘Let’s go on a nature walk!’ And I’m thinking, ‘What did you do with my child?’ This happened within the first four Wednesdays! That has been awesome for our family because we thought we just had an ‘indoor kid’. Before this she was into nail polish and ‘What are you going to do for me?’ and now she’s out there building fairy houses and coming home with science skills and rocks in her pockets.”

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Copyright Wesley Fryer: https://www.flickr.com/photos/wfryer/9229645475

More fairy houses, less nail polish. 

This is a good thing. This gives me hope. This gives children hope. And it helps to develop children who will have the grit, perseverance and resilience to deal with the big challenges of climate change, water scarcity and the assault on scientific thinking in the rest of the 21st century. These children will be the growing edge of a revived conservation movement. 

Nature Kids Lafayette:  From Preschool to High School, From Backyard to Back Country

Oh sure, you’re thinking, hope for middle class, rural and suburban white kids, but what about economically disadvantaged students of color? This issue is moot in public school Forest Days programs as all children are served. Many Vermont public schools serve populations where 40% of the students are on free and reduced lunch, the common metric for family income.

But many nature preschools are trying to solve the equity problem by garnering public funding to support children from low-income families. For instance, the Chippewa Nature Preschool in Midland, MI provides partial and full scholarships for many students with Michigan Great Start Collaborative scholarship funding and extensive support from local foundations. 

Now join me on one more field trip to Lafayette, Colorado, a suburb of Boulder, a place that offers lower home prices and rental costs for those who work in lower-wage jobs in the area. As a result, Lafayette has a higher percentage of community members who identify with non-dominant groups, particularly Latino-identified community members. Lafayette is home to the school with the highest rate of free and reduced lunch and the highest number of students of color in Boulder County.

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In 2014, Thorne Nature Experience, a nature connection organization, worked with two dozen other environmental non-profits to conduct a needs assessment in Boulder County schools. One of the findings was that the Latino community was being significantly less served than the white community. In response, Thorne, in collaboration with the City of Lafayette, Boulder Valley School District and more than a dozen nonprofits initiated a ground-breaking (literally and figuratively) program to address these environmental injustice issues. Nature Kids/ Jóvenes de la Naturaleza Lafayette is designed to connect Latino youth and their families to nature and the outdoors through preschool to high school, backyard to back county, family-integrated environmental education and outdoor recreation programming. It’s a big idea. And they’ve raised nearly 10 million dollars, with seed funding from Great Outdoors Colorado, to make it all happen. It’s the kind of whole system kick-in-the-butt initiative that makes me hopeful.

Keith Desrosiers, director of Thorne and blue-sky thinker, describes the problem.

“Poverty in Boulder County, and especially in Lafayette is largely invisible. It’s hidden behind fences in trailer parks and low-income housing developments. These neighborhoods are often devoid of nature and vegetation and lack adequate sidewalks and street crossings for children to safely walk or bike to school, never mind access a park, a trail or open space.”

The solution is complex, multi-faceted and aspirational. First, they’re going to change the infrastructure in the Latino community around one of the elementary schools so children can safely walk/bike to school, and completely naturalize the school grounds. In addition, they’re taking a cradle to grave, all hands on deck approach towards providing outdoor programming, led as much as possible by Latino community members. 

Carlos Lerma, Lafayette resident and Community Programs Manager describes some of the infrastructure changes that insure that all Lafayette youth live with a safe, ten-minute walk to nature.

“We designed the Nature Kids/ Jóvenes de la Naturaleza with the help of the community to take away any physical, cultural and economic barriers that keep so many of the youth that live in my community from participating in traditional recreational experiences. Nature Kids plans to build five nature play areas, six gazebos, four pedestrian crossings, and over two miles of trails. The highlights of these capital projects are the one million dollar nature play area and neighborhood connector trails at Alicia Sanchez International Elementary School.”

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The programming offerings are diverse. There are 82 different programs—environmental education in elementary schools, after school programs, newly designed middle and high school courses, field trips, summer camps, a youth advisory board, family camping weekends, job training initiatives, backpacking trips, wildlands restoration projects. It’s a mind-boggling array of opportunities offered by 27 collaborating organizations designed to deliver more than 500,000 hours of programming to participants from 2017 to 2022. Those are some big numbers! 

A few examples: In the past year, students at Angevine Middle School planted a pollinator garden at their school and advocated with the City of Lafayette for policies that are pollinator-friendly. Students in a class at Centaurus High School learned about wildfire prevention and then participated in a fire mitigation project at Cal-wood Education Center, an Edenic residential center in the Front Range mountains above Boulder and Lafayette.  They thinned trees to create a defensible space in the forest, built slash piles and stacked wood. The class teacher said,  “It was hard work, but it felt good to help take care of that beautiful area that has become special to us.”  Young children are tromping in streams, teenagers are becoming mentors, and families are going on their first camping trips ever in state parks.   

And yes, recognizing the importance of helping young children bond with the natural world, Thorne is also starting a nature preschool. And so we’ve come full circle.

When I walked into the Thorne Nature Experience building in May 2019 to work with the board of directors on their next five-year strategic plan, I was met just inside the door by Oak Thorne with a pair of male and female lark buntings in his clasped hands. He is the youngest 91-year-old I’ve ever met. The birds were calm, mostly because Oak knows exactly how to hold them, but also perhaps because the birds sensed that he is a gentle, kindred spirit. Oak founded what was then called Thorne Ecological Institute way back in 1954, one of the region’s earliest environmental organizations. He’s been a leader in the open space and nature education movement in Boulder County and throughout the west. At Thorne, he still runs the bird banding program where children as young as 12 can learn to net, band and release songbirds. What a treasure to hold delicate, wild, quietly pulsating life in your own hands.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers, That perches in the soul, And sings the tune without the words, And never stops – at all,” begins the poem by Emily Dickenson. 

That’s what’s happening out there in the meadows in nature preschools, on forest days, along the neighborhood trail to Alicia Sanchez Elementary School. There’s a little bit of hope perching in the souls of children, and we’re counting on that little bit of hope never stopping at all.

It’s similar for me. As Wendell Berry evokes in the poem, The Peace of Wild Things, “When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,” I think of Eliza describing the deep joyfulness of toes-in-mud, creature-in-hand, leap-over-roots and sunshine-on-cheeks, and, “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

An abridged version of this article originally appeared on yesmagazine.org. 

Photo credits: Hartland Elementary, Vermont; Ludlow Elementary, Vermont; Mount Lebanon Elementary, New Hampshire; Thorne Nature Experience, Boulder, Colorado


Additional Reading and Resources

For more examples of nature-based early childhood education, see The Sky Above and the Mud Below:  Lessons from Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens by David Sobel to be published in spring 2020 by Redleaf Press.

Read Part One of this two-part series, TOWARDS ECOPHILIA:  Being Hopeful in Spite of It All

Read more about David Sobel
Read more about Nature Kids Lafayette
Read more about Natural Beginnings Early Childhood Program
BACK TO THE SCHOOL OF THE FUTURE: The Real Cutting Edge of Education Probably Isn’t What You Think It IsThe Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Their Students With Vitamin N
C&NN’s Research Library
C&NN’s Green Schoolyards for Healthy Communities Initiative
The International Association of Nature Pedagogy
Nature-Based Leadership Institute, Antioch University New England
The International Association of Nature Pedagogy
North American Association for Environmental Education
National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF)

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