We don’t know about you, but we’ve been spending a lot more time outside the past couple of years. However, some New York families have been embracing the great outdoors no matter the weather all along. These fans of the Scandinavian “forest school” philosophy — which develops kids’ self-confidence and curiosity through direct exploration of nature—are dedicated to outdoor learning and play in sun, showers and yes, snow. Read on to learn the benefits of forest school, and how and where to have fun in the snow this winter!
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photo: Brooklyn Nature Days
Forest School 101
Like so many things in vogue these days the Forest School concept is Danish in origin. The natural world is literally the classroom in Forest School, with children learning and playing in a forest or woodland environment. Leaner-led, this outdoor education model is said to develop students’ confidence and self-esteem and strengthen social skills, problem-solving and the ability to work as part of a team. It also, obviously, increases kids connection to, and understanding, of the Earth.
Lots of people think the Danes are onto something: Forest school preschool alternatives have cropped up all over the country, and now, NYC kids can go into the wild too, in a variety of ways.
As we've written previously, forest schools, or forest kindergarten are increasingly popular in the U.S.. The pandemic, of course, has only intensified an interest in outdoor learning.
"There's a large and growing body of research that shows kids benefit in myriad ways from outdoor play," says, Anna Sharratt, Executive Director of national forest school organization, Free Forest School. Benefits of outdoor learning and play are said to include increased independence, problem-solving skills, cooperation, resilience, leadership, and creativity and imagination, to name just a few. Physically, kids develop fine and gross motor skills and spatial awareness.
"But the studies just confirm what anyone who interacts with young kids—or who can remember being a kid themselves—already knows," says Sharratt. "Experiences in nature with their peers give kids the freedom, stimulation, opportunities to explore, challenges, and real-world experiences that push them to grow, learn and develop. Above all, I believe that unstructured play in nature supports kids growing into independent, compassionate, critical thinkers and problem solvers."
Outdoor play is also a great way for kids to connect with the experience of being in their bodies, and winter, of course, presents its own opportunities for that. "We ask kids, 'What does your body need right now?'," says Vanessa Ramos, Educational Director of Elements, The Nature Preschool, a school for kids ages three months to five years, located on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Solutions may include anything from running and jumping to dancing or letting out a big yell. (The school has an impressive yard of about 3,500 square feet filled with options for activity such as a treehouse, swings and climbing structures.) "Knowing and living in your body develops mental and physical resilience," says Ramos.
Stephan Kammerer and Sarita Covington run Upper Manhattan Forest Kids, leading outdoor classes in the forest school tradition for kids up to six years old. (Kammerer attended forest kindergarten himself in his native country Denmark; there, it's called "Skovbørnehave.") He says that class outings are for the most part child-led, and employ the idea of "wild play" or "risky play."
"We say, 'Anything you can do on your own, you can do.'," says Covington. "So kids get to know their strength and ability. They say, 'At one point I was not able to to climb that, and now I can'."
What to Wear
No one has any fun if they aren't warm. Outings with Upper Manhattan Forest Kids are typically two hours, but Covington and Kammerer recommend starting with less time, and working up to longer excursions.
Ramos cites "wet and cold" and "wet and windy" as conditions to avoid, and recommends checks of cheeks, fingers and toes for warmth every 15 or 20 minutes. But, she adds, "We say there's no bad weather, just bad clothing."
Key strategies for staying warm:
• Wool is the material of choice: wool hats, wool socks, wool scarf
• Wear waterproof and insulated mittens
• Wear many layers. Long underwear, snow pants, snow jackets. "If you feel you're overdressed, you're probably properly dressed," says Covington. "You can always take something off."
If you're shopping, our experts recommended Polarn O. Pyret, EMS, Patagonia and The North Face as retailers to check out.
Where to Go & What to Do
Exploring and discovery are a big part of the forest school philosophy. (In fact, having a destination is not a priority and even getting a little lost is encouraged.) Kammerer and Covington recommend finding a spot with some variation in the topography. So, a woodsy space with lots of trees and slopes is ideal. Excellent choices include the north woods in Central Park or Inwood Hill Park.
Beyond hiking, Upper Manhattan Forest Kids provides all kinds of activity to keep kids engaged and moving. Examples include scavenger hunts, treasure hunts, red light/green light, Simon Says, obstacle courses and physical challenges like "How fast can you jump over these logs." (You want to keep the extremities moving.)
Winter is also a fun time to observe animal tracks from rabbits, raccoons, dogs, squirrels and other creatures, or make a bird feeder using basic materials.
Another aspect of forest school is reenforcing the idea that everyone is a steward of the Earth; group leaders ask students to point out any trash they see along the way so that an adult can pick it up. "We want to model taking care of the planet," says Kammerer.
What to Eat
It's key to remain hydrated, so be sure to bring water, and sure, some hot cocoa.
The best snacks are whole foods like nuts, trail mix and high-protein items.
photo: Brooklyn Nature Days
A Little or a Lot of Forest School in Brooklyn
Brooklyn Nature Days brings the forest school philosophy to a preschool alternative held Prospect Park in all kinds of weather. Child-led inquiry and the natural surroundings such as the changes of seasons, animals and plant life, inspire each day’s activities.
Founded by Sarah Carlson, a Bank Street Graduate and certified Forest School Kindergarten Teacher, Brooklyn Nature Days also runs school vacation camps, if sampling the forest school way is more your speed.
A typical day begins with a hike to a chosen location, is followed by a hello circle and songs, and is followed by unstructured free play, a high protein/complex carbohydrate snack and activities such storytelling, arts and crafts and nature journaling. Children are invited to participate in activities, but also have the right to continue exploring their own interests if they prefer. Small class size and low student-to-teacher ratio help ensure each kid gets the attention they need.
Both preschool alternative and camps are offered as few as one day a week or as many as five. Drop off locations are at park entrance points of Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park West and 3rd Street, and Prospect Park West and 9th Street.
Brooklyn Nature Days
— Mimi O’Connor
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