By Vicki Schmitz
It was a beautiful, sunny January day as I pulled into the park. Hopping out of my Jeep and stepping onto the little trail leading into the woods, I followed the tinkling laughter of small children playing in the distance. A short walk up the hill and I was there. A tall, smiling woman with a little girl on her hip, Tara Habeck, stood next to a tipi constructed of branches and sticks; they were surrounded by half a dozen tiny children playing in and around the makeshift structure. Another woman, Catherine Fritz, sat on a log with a bucket full of gardening gloves and tools, her gaze watchful and soft as she focused on a little boy playing next to her gently poking the ground with a stick. The women waved as I approached, inviting me to join them. A couple of parents – there to drop their little ones off for the day – smiled and nodded in greeting as several of the children ran over to inspect me.
This patch of wooded heaven situated in the heart of one of Ann Arbor’s beautiful, forested parks is part of their year-round classroom, and for the children and teachers of the Ann Arbor Forest School, their day was just getting started. We soon gathered around the log with Catherine, the school’s Program Director, her beautiful, clear voice leading us in songs of welcome and about nature, then we shared stories about what we did over the holiday vacation.
Gathering our belongings (and the bucket of gardening tools), we then headed down one of the park’s beautifully maintained trails, stopping along the way for a snack and some exploration as we unhurriedly worked our way toward the community gardens. As part of the curriculum, the school has a plot where the children will learn how to cultivate and grow a garden filled with vegetables and herbs.
Tara, Founding Director of the Ann Arbor Forest School, says much of the inspiration to open the school came in the form of friend and mentor Jeannine Palms, whose nature-based preschool, Blossom Home, has been reconnecting children with nature for more than 25 years. The rest, she says, began with her studies long ago.
“For the last two decades I have been curious why some people enjoy decades of success and fulfillment while others struggle their whole lives. This question, what differentiates adults who thrive in their family lives and careers from those who fail to thrive, began with my psychology studies at the University of Michigan.”
A few years after graduating from the University of Michigan, I began to realize what a formative role our early childhood experiences have on our lives.”
After graduating college with degrees in Psychology and Spanish, Tara taught English abroad for six years. In that time, she traveled all over the world gaining valuable life experience while simultaneously looking for direction and purpose in her life. On a trip home to Michigan to visit her sister, she took a temporary gig working with children. It was around this time that she met Jeannine. She quickly realized that she loved what she was doing, and even more importantly to Tara, she felt like she was making a difference in people’s lives. It wasn’t long after recognizing she’d found her path that Jeannine offered to mentor her.
Over the next few years, Tara’s curiosity drove her to learn as much as she could about how our experiences as children shape us into the adults that we become. Earning her degree in childcare from Washtenaw Community College, she then went on to study Nonviolent Communication, a method of compassionate communication often used in schools and professional settings to solve conflict with empathy and understanding. She also studied permaculture design for educators, attended a program through Tom Brown’s Tracker School to study how Native Americans teach their children, and became a certified Simplicity Parenting Family Life Coach, having trained with international author, Kim John Payne.
Through her personal experiences and studies, Tara understands how valuable a nature-based education is to social and emotional development. Her desire to help children become successful, happy adults is what led her to open one of the first forest schools in the United States.
Catherine, whose vibrant energy is the perfect complement to Tara’s calm demeanor, is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast who teaches outdoor skills in addition to working at the Forest School. A graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in German and Arts and Ideas in the Humanities, she has spent much of her life working with children of all ages. Catherine’s experience in youth advocacy programs, theatre, and music also help fulfill the school’s mission of offering a well-rounded educational experience to their students. She says she finds young children a joy to work with, and I believe her; she wears her enthusiasm and dedication to the children on her sleeve as she excitedly talks about the work they are doing and her hopes for the future of the school.
THE FOREST SCHOOL MOVEMENT
The concept of forest schools originated in Denmark in 1950. Children who attended Forest Kindergartens emerged with stronger social skills, higher self-esteem, and worked more effectively in group activities. The children were confident and behavioral problems were fewer. It soon became a permanent addition to Denmark’s early childhood curriculum. Not long after Denmark discovered the value of educating children outdoors, Sweden’s “Skogsmulle” concept was developed, a similar educational model that taught children about nature, water, mountains, and ecology. The outcomes were measurable and overwhelmingly positive, making nature and forest schools popular with teachers, children, and parents. The idea soon spread to other areas of Europe.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that the forest school concept reached the United Kingdom, the first one opening in 1994. Rapid growth and study into the benefits of nature-based education lead to the development of the UK Model, a separate and distinct version of forest education, and to the formation of several special interest groups and organizations. The movement quickly gained traction and blossomed, garnering support from businesses and nonprofits throughout the UK and eventually spreading to Canada in the early ‘00s.
When the Ann Arbor Forest School opened its doors in 2012, it was one of fewer than a dozen nature-based educational programs in the US. Today there are approximately 100 schools of its kind operating throughout the country, and that number is steadily growing.
A NEED FOR CHANGE
Throughout the last century our society has become more focused on study and less on play; children now spend roughly seven percent of their time outdoors. Recess time in most elementary schools has diminished considerably as schools have prioritized test outcomes over play; students in middle and high school grades spend almost the entirety of their day inside, seated. Developmental delays and medical diagnoses relating to sensory integration, cognition, and self-regulation – the number one predictor of future success – have risen over the past few decades, now affecting one in five children; the depression and suicide rates among teens and preteens has also gone up. And of course, technological advances in virtual gaming and social media contribute heavily to the growing disconnect between humans and nature. This disconnect is what Tara and Catherine hope to help eliminate through their educational programs.
Health benefits of being outdoors in a natural setting have been studied extensively over the past several years, and there’s an ever-growing body of evidence that it has a host of positive therapeutic and cognitive effects. Being in nature not only offers the opportunity for connection to the natural world and a better understanding of our place in it, it also stimulates all of the senses, improves cognition, helps to build stronger immune systems, increases resilience, and soothes the central nervous system, reducing stress. And this is merely the tip of the iceberg.
Outdoor educational programming supports the development of skills that help create confident problem solvers, critical thinkers, better observers, and innovators through creative play, teamwork, and hands-on interaction with the world around them. It invites curiosity and rewards this quality with interactive learning experiences that an indoor classroom cannot compete with.
When asked what they loved most about their job, they are in full agreement: “The relationships,” Tara says as Catherine nods emphatically. “The relationships developed at Forest School are strong and they are sweet.” Tara notes that the experience serves to help create strong bonds between the children as peers, with their parents, and with their teachers. Those bonds were evident as I watched the way the children played together and in the gentle, loving, and respectful way that these two pioneering teachers interacted with them. And as Catherine and Tara both point out, being outside connects us to ourselves as well.
LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE
After spending six years at their original location, the school relocated in summer of 2018 to a larger site situated on the edge of 127 forested acres filled with rolling meadows, shaded woodlands, and a wider variety of trees and animals to discover and learn about. The new location offers a host of new and expanded opportunities for learning and exploration, including several miles of trails, expansive fields, a meadow, picnic and playground facilities, gardens (including a pollinator garden), and nature programs led by park naturalists.
Tara and Catherine are excited about the new location’s potential, including the ability to double their capacity from six children to twelve, but they also know it will come with some adjustments. With an increase in enrollment and an ideal teacher to child ratio of 1:5, they’ll also be searching for one more teacher to join their staff. This may not be as easy as it sounds given the unique nature of the school.
“I am so grateful to be working with Catherine, but it was a long road to her. Finding and retaining talent for forest school teachers presents unique challenges. Being a Forest School teacher requires a high skill level (botany, environmental stewardship, setting warm firm boundaries with children, developmentally appropriate adult child interaction, ensure safety, weather, outdoor gear/clothing, teach academics in a classroom without walls, emotional maturity and clear communication, adaptable to a dynamic environment, manage group dynamics, and enjoy being outside in Michigan weather (i.e. January and July), etc.). The learning curve is long and the work is labor intensive.”
Forest schools are still fairly new to the US, so training programs are sparse and often expensive. This means that there’s not a large pool of candidates for Tara and Catherine to choose from, and the childcare industry has such a high turnover retaining talented teachers can be difficult, but if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s these two.
As they look toward the future and plan ahead, they hope to actively collaborate with community partners in the near future. Eventually, they would like to scale up, becoming an outdoor education center. In that capacity, Catherine notes, “We will [be able to] serve a broader age range and offer more diverse programming.”
The future looks bright for this small but mighty school nestled under the canopy of a forest waiting to be explored.
Play-based and entirely outdoors except in severe weather, The Ann Arbor Forest School offers young children the unique opportunity to explore the world around them while learning and growing through projects and stewardship. For more information about the school or how you can be a community collaborator, visit their web site at www.annarborforestschool.com or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.