A Minneapolis-based nature education program was among six organizations chosen last year out of 162 applicants to receive a highly competitive national bridge grant from VELA Education Fund.
Free Forest School has more than 200 local chapters in 49 states, and together they’ve created approximately 100,000 nature education experiences for students. With its VELA funding, the organization plans to expand its membership to at least 50,000 students with an emphasis on creating access to families living in lower-income and underserved communities.
“Even as nature-based education has grown during the pandemic, most kids still don’t have access,” explained Executive Director Anna Sharratt, a mom who founded Free Forest School in 2015. “Nature-based education programs are still relatively rare and cost-prohibitive for most families. Free Forest School seeks to apply our community-based method of peer support through online communities to expand access to nature-based learning, especially to families facing significant barriers.”
Modeled after the increasingly popular forest school learning style, Free Forest School’s nature-based education program provides traditional and nontraditional educators with training and resources to implement outdoor learning for children up to age 8. Forest schools apply outdoor learning methods designed to support play, exploration, and risk-taking. Packaged to be shared with schools, educators, and caregivers, Free Forest School’s framework and curriculum focuses on nurturing learner-led exploration and discovery. Members create recurrent weekly playgroup meetings, pilot partnerships with public and private schools, and form parent-led nature preschool co-ops.
There are at least 14 forest schools operating in Minnesota, three of which are chapters of Free Forest School. Nationwide, the number of forest kindergartens and outdoor preschools doubled to 585 by late 2020, having gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic when many families struggled with remote learning.
Benefits of nature-based education go beyond decreased risk of COVID-19 transmission. Research has found a range of positive impacts to the development of young children who are exposed to frequent, unstructured play in diverse natural settings. Some of these developmental gains include the ability to think critically, problem solve, collaborate, take risks, and build resiliency. Studies have found that children who attend outdoor schools have improved self-confidence, social skills, language development, communication, motivation, and concentration.