It’s spring so there are many fledging birds about. I’m wandering with a group of children when I hear baby dark-eyed juncos begging nearby. I put my hand to my ear and listen. The children do the same. Now we all hear the birds. “Let’s go find them!” they clamor. But before we set off, one little boy cries, “Lia, stop. We have to see if there are any crows around.” He knows that crows could follow us to the nest and eat the baby juncos. We make sure there aren’t any nearby and off we go. Soon, we’re watching the babies being fed by their parents. The little boy tugs on my sleeve, “Lia, we have to go, the crows are here.”
For me that was a gratifying moment because it showed me that our children’s connection with nature is authentic. They understand there are many complicated relationships between creatures besides their own. They know that they can help and harm. They’ve learned to pay attention and notice patterns, which are skills that will serve them all their lives. Most importantly, they have enough compassion that they want to help other creatures. Before anyone ever asks our students to help the Earth, they have an opportunity to fall in love with her first. The world really needs young people to fall passionately in love with it. The heart of what we’re doing is serving children and serving the Earth.
This story comes to us from Lia Grippo, founder and director of Wild Roots preschool in Santa Barbara. Wild Roots is what’s called a Forest School—an education movement that has proliferated in Scandinavia and Britain, and is gaining popularity in the United States, Australia and Canada. Forest Schools take place entirely outside; as Wild Roots’ website describes it, “The sky is our ceiling, the trees are our walls, and our floor is the living Earth.”
Forest Schools combine the ideas and practices put forth by learner-centered, play-based educational philosophers (think Piaget, Steiner and Vygotsky) with environmentalism. It’s supported by a growing body of research about the effects of nature on children’s well-being. The basic idea is that nature is good for kids, and kids who are connected to nature are good for the world.
This has certainly been demonstrated in Lia’s experience. She was born in Latvia when food was scarce and spent her first six years foraging in the forest with her family. She attributes her love of wild plants to those experiences, “So much of what happens in early childhood is pre-memory, therefore, those things live deep in the body. Children don’t lose their relationship to the natural world even if they are taken out of it.”
Grippo’s first preschool, founded in 1996, had a facility surrounded by wild landscapes. The longer she had the building, the more time she and her students spent outside of it. She found that children who had difficulty in the classroom didn’t outside. All around there was less conflict and more magic. Two years later, she decided to move outdoors full-time. She couldn’t get insurance because they didn’t know what to do with an outdoor school, and she had no idea that she was part of a larger movement. Not being someone who shies away from challenge, it didn’t dawn on her to be afraid.
Today, that daring ethos infuses Wild Roots. Children climb trees, learn to avoid poison oak, come across dead animals and even enjoy campfires on rainy days. Grippo believes that children possess an inherent wisdom. They don’t want to hurt themselves. Therefore, incrementally allowing kids to take risks, and get little bumps and scrapes, helps them learn to make informed choices. Wild Roots children are never told to “be careful,” because it only puts their nervous system on alert without giving any information about how to keep safe. Instead, they use language that teaches children how to assess the situation: “Is the branch you’re about to climb on dead or alive?”
More than ever Grippo is committed to children’s right to appropriate risk, “I’ve seen a cultural shift growing that demands parents be afraid so that children aren’t able to take risks that we all took as kids. Unsupervised play, swimming in ponds and all manner of things are now deemed too dangerous.” Being outside, the school is quite public and sometimes that comes up against the fear of risk by folks in the community. People see a child climbing a tree and get frightened. Teachers learn to form good, calm relations with the community, all the while affecting the public’s perceptions.
The good news is that, despite their fears, parents are recognizing the need for quality outdoor education, and they are spearheading the movement. Lia gets emails every day from parents wanting to know if there are Forest Schools in their area. As a result, more and more are springing up.
Parents seem to benefit from Forest Schools as much as children. Their kids teach them how to identify poison oak and which plants they can eat. Inevitably, Lia says, as parents see their kids thrive amidst the rocks, birds and trees, they begin to grieve their own loss of connection to nature, and they strengthen their resolve to recapture what they’ve lost.
This story first appeared in the 2016 Patagonia Kids’ catalog.