Forest schools foster learning outdoors with academic and social success
Forest school is an educational model where children spend their days learning outside instead of in a traditional classroom.
The concept has been around for decades in Europe.
Wauhatchie School, a Chattanooga forest school, started in 2015 and has seen great growth over the past 5 years. The school started with 15 students and now has more than 100 students at 4 different campuses: Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center, Lookout Lake, Ivy Academy, and Audubon Acres.
Their main site is at Reflection Riding, where they serve students from 2 to 14 years old through preschool, kindergarten to 1st grade, and homeschool programs.
"Philosophy of forest kindergarten is that children are learning through nature play, immersed in nature for long periods of time over a period of time," Dr. Jean Lomino, Wauhatchie School Director, described of forest schools.
Children learn through exploring on their own.
Preschool is play-based, and kids stay outside the entire time.
On Wednesday when Channel 3 visited, they were having fun splashing in a creek.
Kids stated that water activities are their favorite part.
"Playing in the water," said Rowan Macco, forest preschooler, and "filling buckets full of water," answered preschooler Lillie Heid.
For kindergarten and up, they use a hybrid model.
"Kindergarten and first grade, the children are typically outside for the majority of the day, and then they come inside where they do more academic type learning," Lomino explained.
These lessons follow the same standards as a school curriculum while extending on what children are inquiring about outside.
"The teachers are watching the children. They're watching their interests, and then they develop reading lessons, language arts, math, science that follow in that same theme that the children have already discovered," said Lomino of the process.
Lomino told Channel 3 that there is documented research of forest schools providing academic, social, emotional, and physical benefits compared to indoor-only classrooms.
Students reach or exceed academic standards while becoming more resilient, adaptable, and happy.
"They're in this beautiful environment. It's open. They're creative. There are no walls hindering them. There's no ceiling above them, and I believe that opens up their spirits and their minds so that they're much more creative," Lomino stated with a smile.
Kids and teachers dress in layers with boots and rain repellent outwear so they can remain outside in all weather.
"The children love being out here. They love being in the rain. It's amazing! They're running around in the puddles, and they're jumping and looking up. And you know, letting the rain come into their mouths," said Lomino enthusiastically.
The only time school is canceled is if there is a threat of severe weather.
Hamilton County public schools are embracing it, too.
East Ridge Elementary School has kindergarten classes that come out to participate.
Wauhatchie also acts as a forest school training center for teachers and administrators from around the country and world.
Visit Wauhatchie School for more information on their programs and training.