Would you send your kids to school in the woods?

Thrive students Will Clark, Quinn Mahoney, Ferris Devlin, Palmer Harris and Julia Eskridge prepare for lunch in their outdoor classroom at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve.
November 20, 2018 (Photo: Michael Clevenger/Courier Journal)

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.

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.

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.

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