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Visit Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve in Goshen, Kentucky, and you’ll find yourself immersed in wooded trails, with small bridges and benches, placid ponds, and hidden waterfalls dotting your path. On Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings, you may also discover children between the ages of three and six attending school — a school with no walls, no desks, no chalkboards, and no computers. Thrive Forest School takes the traditional notion of school, covers it with mud, and pokes it with a stick.

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Forest schools may be uncommon in the U.S., but they have been popular in Scandinavian countries for many years. Their focus is not academic but on helping students learn soft skills that they will need to be successful in traditional school: how to assess and manage risk; collaborate; communicate; and problem solve.

Thrive Forest School was born in summer 2018 from a nature immersion camp experiment, which was well-received by local families. “It fit the mission of Creasey. Our goal is education and trying to create the future forest leaders,” says Tavia Cathcart Brown, the preserve’s executive director.

The success of the summer camp led to the creation of the school itself, which had its first day on September 4, 2018. The school adopted the summer camp’s motto: Your child will come home dirty or your money back. Ryan Devlin, the school’s director, says, “We haven’t had to refund any money yet.”

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So what does a typical forest school day look like?

Students say goodbye to their parents at the Forest Friends playground and begin a 100-yard hike down a private trail to the forest classroom. Devlin says the hike might take five minutes or an hour depending on what students discover along the way, which could be deer, birds, turtles, or an interesting stick. The school’s teachers stand back and allow the children’s natural curiosities to lead the way. Once students arrive at the classroom and hang their backpacks (on branches and other forest hooks), they are allowed to play. “There is an incredible amount of imaginative play that occurs,” Devlin says.

The children might make mud, climb over logs, build a fort, or float leaves in water. Their daily routine includes eating a snack, singing songs, and hearing a story, which usually weaves in a seasonal or ecological theme. What they don’t do is sit at tables in a building and complete worksheets.

Because Thrive Forest School is not a traditional classroom experience, some people may worry whether children learn fine motor skills and phonetics, which children are typically expected to have and know when they enter kindergarten. Children who attend forest schools do, in fact, develop many of the skills needed for kindergarten but not by holding pencils or learning the Phonics Dance. Forest school students are grasping sticks, picking up tiny rocks and stones, and filtering sand and dirt through their fingers, all of which enhance their finger dexterity and strength. Singing songs and hearing stories about nature builds the students’ vocabulary and ability to differentiate sounds. 

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During the cold months, teachers may build a fire in the fire pit. In addition to adding heat and coziness to the outdoor classroom, children learn to cooperate by collecting tinder and kindling, as well as how to safely be around fire. Devlin says the school strives to help children manage risk in an environment that avoids hazard. Children learn some simple rules that teach them the difference between these two concepts, such as  not climbing higher than their height.

Kay Eskridge, whose daughter, Julia, attends Thrive Forest School, says, “I have seen growth in her confidence to try new things. Julia is naturally very cautious and was not a climber before Forest School. Now she is eager to climb.” Eskridge has also been pleased with Julia’s scientific understanding: “I was surprised at how much science they are grasping, and I love it! My husband is a biology teacher and is also very impressed with this aspect.”

Rain and snow do not stop forest school, and the weather may, in fact, make the day more interesting for the children. Thrive Forest School provides a buying guide for parents so that they know exactly how to dress their children for the elements. Children wear a base layer of wool, a thermal layer that might be fleece, and a waterproof shell. A hood, rain pants, and waterproof boots are part of the “uniform.”

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“[The children] are their own teachers to some extent,” says Thrive teacher Kathryn Keefe. “What has surprised me the most is the objects the children are interested in and how much they absorb without us guiding them. For example, one of the children found a tiny hole in a decomposing log and wanted to know how it got there. Through a series of open-ended questions, the child came to the conclusion it was a beetle hole. This is just something that cannot be discovered in a traditional classroom.”

While there is plenty of data on forest schools showing that a focus on play and cooperation rather than academics is far more important in the early childhood years, seeing children literally covered in dirt or swinging from tree vines will make most any adult wish they, too, had an opportunity to relive their childhood curiosity at Thrive Forest School.

Extra tidbit: Five ways you can enhance your child’s intellectual and emotional growth. Also, don’t forget about the basics

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