Jennifer Bradshaw has been waiting to teach in the forest for two years.
The Ridgefield resident and early childhood education coordinator at Woodcock Nature Center will get that opportunity this fall after researching how to implement and launch the area’s first forest school program for preschoolers.
“Research shows that children who learn in a forest school environment gain confidence, self-awareness, creativity, and excitement about learning,” said Bradshaw, the creator of Woodcock’s Little Forest Folk program. “They also learn appreciation and respect for nature as well as each other.”
Forest school programs have been popular in places like Germany and Finland for decades, and the concept has been gaining popularity in the United States for more than a decade.
“Scandinavia introduced the concept of teaching kids outside rather than have them sit indoors inside a classroom, surrounded by four walls and a chalkboard,” Bradshaw said. “I heard about it a long time ago and I’ve been wanting to do it for a while.”
“A true ‘nature preschool’ must always keep nature at the heart of its programs,” she added.
“Walls, chalkboards — you’re not going to find those here.”
Lessons that Little Forest Folk students will learn include counting sticks and rocks, writing in the mud, and reading surrounded by wildlife.
“They’re going to do a lot of learning through play rather than having a set curriculum,” Bradshaw said. “We’re going to be teaching math and literature, but just in a different way.”
In its pilot school year, Woodcock plans to accept only eight Little Forest Folk participants, who will attend class from September through June. Bradshaw and another Woodcock educator will lead the group three mornings a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
“It’s crucial that the program be limited in size so that we can focus on the needs of each child as we explore our outdoor classroom through unstructured play, healthy risk taking and exploratory learning,” she said.
Children in the program will make use of an outdoor classroom and be encouraged to climb, seek adventure and explore the 149 acres of the Woodcock Nature Center preserve.
The WNC property includes woodland forests, swamps, streams, and a pond.
Daily lessons may also include hiking, building, craft-making, and journaling, all while learning about local ecology, geology, plants, and wildlife.
“When I was young I played outside for hours, climbing trees, building forts, catching frogs, and splashing in the stream,” Bradshaw recalled to The Press this week. “My imagination ran wild and free, and I cherish my childhood because of these experiences. I want that for every single child.”
Applications for enrollment in the 2018-19 Little Forest Folk program are being accepted now through April 19.
Visit Woodcock Nature Center’s website, woodcocknaturecenter.org, for information and to apply.
Woodcock Nature Center is a nonprofit organization located at 56 Deer Run Road in Wilton just over the Ridgefield border. Call 203-762-7280 for more information.