People throughout western Washington are all about spending time outdoors for recreation, but what about taking education outside?
Forest schools are doing just that: breaking down the walls of the classroom and teaching kids outdoors. The concept is challenging traditional educations. Kids are taught self-esteem, teamwork and the value of nature while they play in the dirt.
At Fiddleheads Forest School preschoolers are catching bugs, building fairy gardens and examining specimens under microscopes. Decked from head to toe in rain gear; the mud, the elements, even a Cooper’s hawk dropping a dead squirrel on a branch overhead, is not overwhelming for these young learners. In fact, it is what inspires their curiosity.
Fiddleheads is helping shape this movement of forest schools in Seattle. Every aspect of class, from reading to snack time, takes place in what they call “The Forest Grove.”
Lead teachers and co-directors, Sarah Heller and Kit Harrington, were thrilled when their dream came to fruition and they were able to open the preschool in the Washington Park Arboretum in 2013.
“It’s always been a dream to have a school,” said Sarah. “And this seemed like the perfect place, being in the heart of Seattle, with the backing of the University of Washington.”
The affiliation with the University of Washington allows Fiddleheads to be a large part of the research being done to prove the value of this type of school.
Similar outdoor preschools have been popping up around Seattle, Tacoma and the East Side, and parents are flocking.
But some, if not all, question the academic piece and whether a class outside in the dirt and trees will prepare a child for Kindergarten.
That was Samantha Fogg’s question when she first enrolled her oldest in the school.
“What happens next? We’re out in the woods, so it’s this very idyllic setting. It’s the arboretum, so it’s manicured woods, safe woods, but my plan was always to have my kids go to public school.”
Now her daughter is finishing up her Kindergarten year at a nearby public school and is moving along at the same pace as the students around her.
“She started out probably a little behind some of the other kids academically, but within the first month she was pretty much caught up.”
Samantha says the most challenging part of the transition for her daughter was learning how to sit most of the day, but she adds, the outdoor classroom prepared her daughter to handle tough and changing situations. She knows how to adapt and regulate her own behavior.
“Kids can’t bounce off the walls, if there are no walls.”
Because of the overwhelming response of applications this year, Fiddleheads decided to add another classroom. They will open the second forest grove nearby and double their students and teachers for next year. Sarah says she is not surprised by the excitement over this type of education.
“The kids are going to spend upwards of 15 years in school, inside a classroom with walls and a roof. This is a pretty magical way to spend those early childhood years.”
Early education expert, Susan Butterfield, answered your questions about preparing preschoolers for the transition to kindergarten.