Forest schools have a long, robust history in Europe (termed Waldkindergärtens in Germany), and are just beginning to gain popularity in the U.S. Forest schools are distinguished by their commitment to nature immersion, interest-led flow learning, emergent curriculum, inquiry-based teaching style and authentic play. Research strongly supports this type of learning environment for young children across all developmental areas: cognitive (e.g. academic performance, language, STEM skills, critical-thinking, scientific reasoning, creativity), social-emotional (e.g. self-concept, teamwork, leadership, initiative, locus of control, resiliency), and physical (e.g. health, neurological-integration, vestibular-proprioception development, immune system, eyesight). Please see the "resources" section for more information.
Blue Ridge Forest School's founder, Jessica Kiley, Ed.S., is a past school psychologist with a passion for child development, social-emotional well-being, nature, and the arts. Through her experiences working with children and educators, she felt compelled to create a program for Charlottesville's preschool-aged children that would allow them to bloom in the most nurturing and natural way possible. The environment must be loving, joyful, and play-based. Outside play in nature must be viewed as a necessity, and childhood regarded as its own, sacred experience--not just a path to adulthood. With this vision, and the help of brilliant co-teachers trained in Waldorf education, Village Playschool (2014) was born, eventually developing into its current form as Blue Ridge Forest School (2017).
"I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age."
-Henry David Thoreau
Fall camp: Sept.- Dec.
Spring camp: March - June
Summer camp: Week-long, half-day
Tuesdays in the fall & spring: Reservoir Ecosystem
Thursdays in the fall & spring: Forest & Stream Ecosystem
DAILY: 9:00-12:30 (Our daily rhythm will breathe in and out to best meet the young child's need for both community and freedom)
Our rhythm may be adjusted from day to day as the weather and seasons change, and as the children develop. We will conform to the children’s present needs, but the general timing will be similar to the following:
9:00 Drop-off at Ivy Creek Natural Area; Hike to our first location
9:30 Sit spot; Seasonal circle time; Snack (organic apples, dried fruit, nuts/seeds); Teacher does a hazard check of the area; Child-guided play & ecosystem exploration
10:30 Seasonal story or forest game; Water break; Hike to second location
11:15 Packed picnic lunch; Teacher does a hazard-check of the area; Child-guided play & ecosystem exploration
12:10 Closing circle/reflection time; Hike back
Sit spot time is a centering moment in our mornings where we take a moment to connect with the forest in our own special spots that we return to day after day, season after season. We open our senses and tune-in. If you came upon us on a hike, you might not even know you were surrounded by a dozen children spread out throughout the area! The term is taken from “Coyote Mentoring” principles. While we are learning about sit spots at the beginning of the semester, we may just focus on one sense at a time (e.g. deer ears, owl eyes, etc.).
For our seasonal story of the day, the teacher creates puppets and story props out of forest materials while using a fallen tree as a puppet stage. Story time is such a special time for the children--they watch the simple figures in awe, learning about the seasons, the natural world, social customs, story structure (beginning, middle and end), and more, while gaining vocabulary and auditory comprehension skills. The children also develop empathy, emotional awareness, and pro-social skills while watching the characters interact with each other in the story. Children absorb and apply the elements learned during story time as they go about their day, helping to connect all the different parts of their life. Having sweet narratives to reflect on become a powerful centering tool for the children in a sometimes confusing world. Many of the children mimic the teacher by creating their own forest puppets and narrating stories for their friends during our school day, and later at home for their family.
Seasonal songs and verses are accompanied by gross motor movements and fine motor "finger rhymes." Learning songs using large and small movements is really fun for preschoolers, but it also develops countless pre-academic, motor, musical, and social skills that will serve them throughout their school years and beyond. Important skills such as the pre-reading skills of vocabulary, auditory memory, aural comprehension, phonological awareness, and rhyming; gross and fine-motor body-awareness skills; eye-hand coordination; neurological development via crossing the body's midline (doing so helps with brain-hemisphere integration, which is needed for reading and writing); music literacy (beat, rhythm, tempo, volume, pitch, etc.); and social skills such as being able to join a group, follow along, respect friends' personal space, impulse control, etc.
All of these important skills are learned naturally and deeply through this fun, developmentally-appropriate medium. The "topics" of the songs vary by season, and cover a broad range of knowledge using sweet, often magical stories that speak to the heart of children. "Hidden" knowledge in the songs include: Math concepts (counting, adding, subtracting, one-to-one correspondence), daily weather observations, seasonal patterns, biology/ecosystem concepts, time, emotional awareness and empathy for others, social customs, categorizing, comparing-contrasting, prediction, pattern recognition, etc.
"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
-William Butler Yeats
Play-Based & Child-Guided
The Outdoor Classroom
You may notice how the daily rhythm "breathes in and out" throughout the day: Parts of the day are open where the activities are largely child-guided, followed by activities that are community-oriented (circle time, meals, story time). The daily rhythm was purposely created in this way in order to fluidly meet the child's needs for both self-direction and community.
The students develop an intimate community of mixed-aged teammates to laugh and learn with. They learn to take care of themselves, their friends, and their environment. The mixed-aged group allows for children to stretch and grow, as well as take on leadership roles, allowing for maximum growth opportunities for all.
The teachers provide unconditional warmth and respect for the students (largely inspired by RIE/Magda Gerber's framework, as it relates to preschoolers). We model prosocial behaviors, such as talking about our feelings, showing empathy for our friends, using our manners, etc. Emotional awareness, consistency of behavioral expectations, and a predictable daily rhythm will foster feelings of safety and security in their forest home.
Parent's Tea (a.k.a. Parent-teacher conferences) will be arranged to strengthen the relationships between parents and the teacher, and to serve as a quiet moment to discuss the child's life at school. Strengths and areas of growth witnessed over the course of the school year will be discussed. Specific child-development topics may also be addressed based on parent-request. Seasonal celebrations and other activities will be scheduled throughout the year to encourage a supportive village of families. The goal being that the warmth and support we build in our adult circle will trickle down to the children and fill them with a sense of comfort and security.
Children need to follow their own innate curriculum, for it is the wisest of all. That is why our program is play-based and child-guided for significant periods of the day, meaning, the children choose their activity within the established environment. This innate curriculum guides their play choices--whether they need to process the day's emotions by creating play scenarios with friends and forest props, develop the gross motor skill of balance using a log, hone the skill of self-control by alternating turns climbing a special tree, practice the cognitive skills of sorting and categorizing using found forest items, refine the fine motor skills needed to pry open a fallen nut and build fairy houses, and on and on.
The teacher will remove barriers to learning--encouraging children to explore, experiment, manipulate, and touch their world, letting their interests and inner timetable guide them. Inquiry-based, playful, indirect modeling may be used when appropriate. For example, the teacher may lie down and look up at the trees. The children may follow suit, or they may continue to explore under the rocks they were overturning. While lying down, the teacher wonders aloud, "I hear so many birds singing this morning. I wonder what they are saying?" The children naturally begin creating hypotheses, using teamwork, communication, critical thinking, and humor. While looking up at the birds, a child suddenly notices the clouds moving fast past the treetops. She exclaims, "LOOK! The clouds are MOVING!" and they all gather together in awe at this new discovery about their world. What could be a more beautiful or more empowering way to learn for these students?
But the gains go beyond just skill-development and fact-learning. A healthy self-concept and a belief in one's ability to influence his/her circumstances is largely built in early childhood through these types of empowering, collaborative, and invigorating experiences. For young children, these formative experiences are most abundant in a play-based, child-guided, outdoor setting.
Children thrive with an abundance of sunshine, wind on their cheeks, and dirt under their nails (and research strongly supports this). Rain, snow, or shine, we will be outside--intimately connected to the changing seasons.
Have you ever noticed how children's (and everyone's!) entire demeanor seems to change when they are outdoors in nature? Children become more relaxed, joyful, inquisitive, mindful, and focused. They are kinder and play more harmoniously with each other. We've witnessed over and over how children bubble over with intense feelings of camaraderie, connectedness, and love after an invigorating morning hiking and playing in the forest. When we are happy and relaxed, we are ready to learn! Nature allows us to access our best selves, and therefore, it is truly the ultimate classroom.
Learning and skill development happens naturally using the endless materials and terrain all around us: Does this stick/leaf/acorn float? I found a salamander under this log--let's observe and ask questions! I'm trying to build a fort using this branch but it's too heavy for me to lift on my own--I need to ask my friend for teamwork help and then use visual-spatial reasoning to keep it balanced! I'm trying to get to the top of this log but I keep slipping--I need to persevere, use my gross motor muscles, and problem solve! Let's create a forest market using this log as the counter, leaves as money, and sticks as food (counting, creativity, teamwork, leadership, and social skills are all used in this one game). Indoor classrooms and playgrounds try to replicate these rich opportunities, but in the end, they simply can't hold a candle to the richness and diversity of Mother Nature.
Along with endless opportunities for learning and skill development outdoors, children also develop a sense of awe, curiosity, respect, and love of the natural world, which is the foundation for a lifelong love of learning and self-directed exploration. Their senses are filled and their observation skills are fine-tuned as they intimately get to know a particular natural place in time, watching it change in countless ways through the seasons.
“I have found in my many years of teaching young children, and in my years as a mother of young boys, that most children are happiest at play outdoors. Young children are close to the realm of nature because they are still very natural beings. Because their consciousness is not yet separated from the environment, because they still live in the consciousness of oneness, of unity, they belong still to the natural world. In time they will belong to themselves, as the process of individuation becomes complete. But for about the first seven years, they are still at one with the world they inhabit. The process of separating from the parents and from the environment buds only around age seven. Before that, the child is moved along by life, something like the way a tree’s leaves dance in the breeze. The young child responds to the environment in a very unself-conscious way, a very natural way, and the open, complex, and diverse environment of the outdoors gives him that opportunity. If, in his excitement at a butterfly, he needs to dance and pirouette dizzyingly around the garden, no one has to say, “Be careful of the table.” If he needs to shout for glee or weep for sorrow, he is free.”
-Excerpt from "Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children" (page 99) by Sharifa Oppenheimer
Forest Camp Enrollment
2020/21 & 2021/22 School Years
Dear prospective families,
We have been on break during the pandemic and we planned to resume our program in the fall of 2021. It deeply saddens us to say that we will continue to remain on break throughout the fall of 2021. We will keep you updated if new information becomes available that may alter these plans.
Jessica Kiley, Founding Director