Back in 2018, a mom named Amber Brown posted an innocent question on Facebook:
“Does anyone want to start a forest school?”
A fellow mom named Madeleine Braden replied, and said she did. She didn’t know Brown personally, only that Brown had liked some of the gardening tips she’d posted on the platform. But that was enough. The two Dallas-area parents met up and made a commitment to launch Barefoot University as a nature-based homeschool co-op. Today, the group includes 16 chapters reaching hundreds of families across three states.
“We didn’t mean to do this!” said Brown, with a laugh, remarking at how much their initial idea had grown.
Brown was not homeschooled as a student, but she decided to homeschool her four children when their curiosity started getting them in trouble in their traditional schools; her oldest child got in trouble for taking a rock off of the playground. Meanwhile, her 3-year-old would go outside and ask endless questions. What is this plant? What is it good for? Can I eat it?
“I had to educate myself a lot,” said Brown.
To start Barefoot University, Brown and Braden took their children and started posting online about weekly meetups they were planning in public parks. There were some pre-planned activities, but the children’s interests largely drove each day (and each meetup happened, rain or shine). The moms were in it, they said, for the community, both for themselves and for their children.
Within a few months, 60-70 families were showing up.
“When it got too big, we were like, ‘It doesn’t feel like community anymore,’” Brown said.
New chapters formed, and today Barefoot University has volunteer leaders facilitating meetups in Texas, Tennessee, and Virginia. There are about 25 families in each chapter, and most chapters have a waitlist. Most children are between ages 9-13, but younger and older siblings are welcome.
For just $70 a year, homeschooling and unschooling families receive a workbook, a nature journal, and an invitation to join a group each week for an activity. The activities focus on one of the four elements: earth, sky, fire, water. There are also field trips and service activities.
At the weekly meetups, students sometimes use a saw to cut rings off of a log and investigate a tree’s age. Sometimes they come up with strategies for crossing creeks. Risk play is okay, Brown says – the challenges help build children’s self-esteem and communication skills.
“I’ve learned not to say be careful, but more ‘Do you see this obstacle?’” Brown said. “Children have the opportunity to use tools and do activities that allow them to develop their critical thinking and give them the freedom to make mistakes.”
Learn more about Barefoot University: Website