Jackson, Wyo. • A child’s curiosity coupled with wilderness is powerful.
At Teton Science Schools' forest kindergarten summer program, a bird book, spatula, rope and a few other key ingredients kept children happy and learning without the need for screens.
"They don't ask for technology; it's not even really talked about," said Jane Strader, a prekindergarten teacher. "I try to keep the materials as natural as possible. They seem to be fine without all that stuff, and I think it's a beautiful thing. It's awesome to see what they can come up with and create using their imaginations without using technology to spur ideas. They've got it all in them already."
Teton Science Schools experimented this summer with the idea of forest kindergartens, which are geared toward preschoolers ages 4 to 6 but called "kindergarten" because of the terminology of where they originated. Jane Strader and co-teacher Christina Macy led a pair of three-week sessions, one in Wyoming and one in Victor, Idaho. Each day was as long as a traditional school day and focused on outdoor play, hands-on experiential learning and children guiding their own discoveries.
Forest kindergartens, and the idea of youngsters spending more time outside, are exploding in popularity. A 2005 book by Richard Louv, "Last Child in the Woods," coined the term "nature deficit disorder." Documentaries like "School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten" explore schooling that's radically different from the test-centric, screen-centric American philosophy.
It isn't all hype. A 2003 doctoral dissertation by Peter Hafner in Germany showed that graduates of German forest kindergartens had a "clear advantage" over graduates of regular kindergartens, outpacing their peers in cognitive and physical abilities, as well as in creativity and social development.
Another study on children in England and Wales found that forest kindergartens improved confidence, social skills, communication, motivation, physical skills, knowledge and understanding.
Forest schools are sweeping the U.K., and they are popping up in New Zealand, Japan, Israel and other countries. But since the programs are relatively new in the U.S., long-term results are unknown. A map on the American Forest Kindergarten Association’s website shows that most states have a handful of programs.
Strader stumbled into teaching at a forest kindergarten when she lived in Germany during college. The "total happenstance," she said, was pivotal. She's since worked with influential leaders in the field of nature-based early education, like Ellen Doris and David Sobel at Antioch University.
"I was just totally amazed that education could look like that at such an early age and how formative it was for those children going into their school careers, how it prepared them socially and emotionally and connected them to the world around them and each other," Strader said. "Since then I've continued to pursue education with the goal of starting my own. It's wild. Life comes at you when you least expect it."
At R Park on Aug. 1, the students enjoyed the natural habitat. Some played with sticks in the water, imagining pontoon and sea planes taking off, or "caught" fish with a rope. Mia Scharnhorst, 6, made a boat of two crossed sticks and tied a rope to it to drag it along the water. Her classmate Jed Bowerstock, 5, did something similar. The children were in their own worlds, creating fanciful additions with every passing moment.
Some made a "river" in the gravel, using a spatula to dig in the dirt and working together to cause the water to run downstream.
"Look at it!" Cassius Musser, 4, said. "We made a mini-Snake River."
"We just play," Charlotte Ahlum, 4, said.
Earlier, she said, she got soaking wet in the pond.
And that's OK. After the session in Victor, parents told Strader that the kids were "pretty chewed up by the bugs" and "super tired." While the bugs might be able to be mitigated, dealing with the second is less of a priority.
"There might be a magical face painted on it (forest kindergarten), and it's true, extremely magical moments happen throughout the day," Strader said. "But it's not always pretty. They still get in fights, I still have to redirect, they're not always listening. It's real, it's raw, it's right there. There's nothing fake about it."
A few feet away, Charlotte's classmate Flynn Jackson, 6, shouted ecstatically.
"I caught a thing! I caught a thing!" he said.
The thing, or things, were grasshoppers that Flynn wanted to make an improvised bug catcher for.
"I bet it's going to bite me," Flynn said. "I'm going to make a natural habitat for them with some grass."
But what kind of grass? Flynn and his classmates looked up species of native plants in a guidebook. They learned that pineapple weed could make tea and that ticks sometimes hang out in sagebrush.
Parents, Strader said, like it when their kids come home with knowledge like this. The session at Snowdrift Farms in Victor focused on plants.
"The kids all came home knowing the names of all these different wildflowers," Strader said. "The parents were pretty psyched on it."
Children in the forest kindergarten program needed a change of pace as the morning progressed. That's all part of Strader and Macy's plan and structure, which starts with free play, moves to "sit spots" at a "base camp" that stays the same all session, then back to play before lunch, with time allotted for naps and stories.
"I create rules with them in the beginning of the session," Strader said. "Since it's their rules, it helps keep them accountable."
She softly sang a song about mountains, something she remembered from camp as a child, with hand gestures to reiterate the lyrics. Then, she instructed the children to go to their sit spots, quiet places they picked out in the beginning of the session, to draw things they found special and bring them back to share in a group meeting.
"They can just breathe and observe," Strader said. "They say some beautiful things. I'm amazed at their ability and their excitement to be there."
Students returned to the circle with observations of plants, bugs and some mythical creature sightings. Strader and Macy jotted it all down, taking notes of what the kids said and did so they could ask better questions later and facilitate educational play.
"It's a lot less about what I want them to learn and a lot more about what they know and what they love and how I can draw them out to see it," Strader said.
And with that, quiet reflection time was over. Children jumped up, excited to spend more time playing. Isaac Kinney, 5, and his buddy, Felix Fleck, 5, headed to a tipi they built from sticks while other boys and girls headed toward a zip line strung between two trees.
At the Teton Valley Community School in Victor, teachers already try to have weekly days in the woods.
"We've worked really hard these past three years to get our kids into the woods as often as possible," Strader said. "The magic and learning that happens in the woods is beyond the environment you could ever create in the classroom."
Another benefit of time spent in the forest, she said, is a shift in the teacher-student dynamic.
"I find that it evens the playing field," Strader said. "I am no longer necessarily a teacher; I feel like I'm more of a guide and a resource. They're problem solving, they're asking their own questions, they're laughing and playing in the most simple, free-form of ways. Kids come home tired and dirty and happy and asking questions."
True forest kindergartens are year-round — rain, shine or snowstorm. Would that work in the Tetons, where Old Man Winter comes and stays with a vengeance?
Strader thinks so. The forest kindergarten programs this summer were a trial run, minus the extreme weather.
"Winter would look different," she said. "My main crux right now is property and where to run the program. If it were to run in the winter it would definitely need some sort of indoor structure where kids can take their gloves off and eat lunch and dry their clothes."
A yurt would be "pretty ideal," Strader said. She's spending this fall visiting other model programs and how they work in freezing temperatures.
"I think it's definitely possible," Strader said.
There’s a market for outdoor-based educational opportunities in Jackson. While parents certainly take their children outside, like the informal parent-led woods days with young children in Kelly, there aren’t official forest kindergarten programs in the area. The closest is Roots For School, a forest preschool in McCall, Idaho, or the Honeybee Nature School in Ogden, Utah.
“There’s certainly a huge parent buy-in and interest in this community,” Strader said. “I feel like now, more than ever, is a time to get one going.”