Would you send your kids to school in the woods?
This Kentucky classroom has no computers, toys or walls. Instead, students are surrounded by an abundance of oak and maple trees and a bubbling creek. In the spring, butterflies and honey bees are their constant companions.
On a cold day in early winter, a woodpecker chatters away on an old tree branch overhead and nearby, the soft crunching sound of squirrels can be heard bounding through fallen dried leaves.
You might not know it, but you're in the middle of a classroom.
"We're Louisville's first forest preschool," said Ryan Devlin, director of Thrive Forest School at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve. "We're outside all day, every day, rain or shine or snow."
He's not kidding.
The pint-sized troupe of 10 kids who attend the school range in age from 3- to 6-years- old. With their tiny arms and legs well-guarded against the chilly morning air in snow pants and jackets, warm mittens, hats, and waterproof boots, they look like ducklings waddling down the forest path on their way toward the outdoor classroom.
"We like to say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices. If kids are warm and dry, they are happy," the famous television actor-turned-educator Devlin told Courier Journal (you may know him from TV show "Brothers & Sisters")
Plus, they are learning.
Forest school isn't a new concept in other parts of the world. A forest school revolves around getting young children outside and interacting hands-on with nature. It's been around since the 1950s in Scandinavia and is now popular across the globe. In Germany alone, there are more than 1,500 "waldkindergartens" or forest kindergartens.
Sarah Jessica Parker (mom to three son James and twin daughters Marion and Tabitha): “As a working mother high heels don’t really fit into my life anymore - but in a totally wonderful way. I would much rather think about my son than myself.”
The trend is also incredibly popular in the United Kingdom, according to The Forest School Association, and they're even popular in Australia where they are called "bush kindy."
While the trend is just starting to catch on locally, there are more than 200 nature-based preschools and kindergartens in the United States, according to the Natural Start Alliance.
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Here, the idea got a kick-start in 2005 when best-selling author Richard Louvreleased "Last Child in the Woods," introducing readers to his concept of “nature-deficit disorder.”
Louv writes about children losing their connection to the natural world and the detrimental effects the loss has on them as they grow and mature. He cites research linking the lack of outdoor interaction with childhood trends in obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and even depression, and suggests one antidote is to get kids back outside as much as possible.
That is exactly what is happening at Thrive Forest School as three young girls work together to mix up imaginary cups of hot chocolate and an "eggplant cake" made of sticks and leaves. Nearby, another group is busy adding water from the creek to small silver pails filled with dirt and lavender colored chalk shavings.
"I was surprised at how much science they are grasping, and I Iove it," said Kay Eskridge, mother of 3-year-old Julia. "My husband is a biology teacher and is also very impressed with this aspect."
Perched on a three-foot high tree stump, Quinn Mahoney invites classmates to join him as he uses a small shovel to scrape flecks of the colored chalk into the mix.
"It's a potion, we need more green and purple," he instructs the others, "and I think more leaves."
The preschool takes advantage of the nooks and crannies that make up the 175 acres of Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve. The kids scramble up and down an enormous mound of mulch nicknamed "Mulch Mountain" or take a hike to the frog pond.
"It takes a courageous parent to say, 'OK. my child would like to be outside the entire school year,'" said Tavia Cathcart Brown, executive director Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve. "But parents tell me their kids are coming home happy and talking about all the discoveries of the day — about floating leaves down the stream or that turtle or frog that they saw."
Brown has watched as the children build knowledge about the natural world while developing personal confidence, compassion towards each other and an expanded sense of wonder.
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The designated classroom occupies an acre and a half of the nature preserve. Although not immediately apparent to the casual hiker, the space is intentionally arranged for maximum learning and safety. There are multiple tree stumps used for tables, climbing and seating, a fire pit with a circular roped off barrier for safety, easy access to the creek and a knotty tree branch lashed horizontally between two standing trees which serves as a hanging rack for small backpacks.
"I think a lot of preschools today are overly focused on academics and have lost touch with what kids this age need, which is a sense of play," Devlin said. "Our kids take part in exploratory play, learn creative problem solving and are encouraged to develop a love of learning that will carry them through primary school and beyond."
Except for child-sized shovels, pails, rakes and chunky sticks of colored chalk, there are no other toys. Imagination and creativity are the primary motivators. The children take walks, sing songs, listen to birds, capture insects for observation and pretend sticks are arrows.
Devlin started the unique-to-Louisville outdoor school program for his own son, Ferris, who is 3 and a half years old.
A year and a half ago, Devlin, an actor known for his role on "Brothers and Sisters," "Cougar Town," and "Jane the Virgin," moved from Los Angeles to Goshen with his wife, screenwriter Kara Holden. Holden, a Kentucky native, is the writer behind "Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life," and "Carrie Pilby."
"I started doing research on early childhood development and stumbled across this movement called 'forest preschool,'" said Devlin. "The data is overwhelming. It's an incredible way for a child to develop important soft skills like creative problem-solving, compassion, confidence and independent thinking, which then become extremely important when they move onto primary school and start learning the hard skills like reading, math, and science."
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When he couldn't find a nature-based preschool close to home, Devlin spent a year training under two of the premier forest schools in the country and brought the idea to Creasey Mahan Forest Preserve.
Nature preschools require teaching staff to have experience in both early childhood education and environmental education. The Louisville school currently employees two full-time teachers who carefully supervise and encourage child-led exploratory play.
Class size is purposefully kept small, with a 5-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio. There is an indoor space for extreme weather but it is seldom needed.
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Since opening its invisible doors to the Louisville community last fall, demand for a spot in the forest classroom has been high. In its first year, the school had a waiting list. While applications aren't open yet for the 2019-20 year, Devlin expects the school to continue being popular.
"Calvin now knows that every day, no matter the weather, is a great time to explore," said Victoria Michaels, mother of 4-year-old Calvin. "He is less reliant on toys and objects to entertain him. He will happily engage in imaginative play using sticks and leaves and he is much more confident of his own abilities. He's much more willing to persevere when he is having trouble doing something."
On any given weekday morning, in a magical section of the forest, 10 warmly bundled kids are building forts, scrambling up Mulch Mountain and gazing up into the towering trees to catch sight of a woodpecker.
While there are no computer screens, behavior charts or worksheets, there is another type of learning which is rooted in play, discovery and a guarantee from the school's director — "Your child will come home dirty or your money back."
Reach Kirby Adams at email@example.com Twitter @kirbylouisville.