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How A Forest School Uses Nature To Teach Preschoolers Life Skills

flickr / Kevin Conor Keller

Most kids harbor an innate love of the outdoors. Given the slightest opportunity, they’ll go all Moonrise Kingdom — running, sweating, skinning knees, and exploring until you track them down. You also know that giving them ample time to explore the wild is essential for their health and happiness. Which is why Lia Grippo, Founder, Director and Lead Teacher of Wild Roots Forest School, turns the great outdoors into a great place for preschool education.

RELATED: Getting Kids Into the Outdoors Starts in the BackyardWild-Roots-Forest-School-2

Wild Roots Forest SchoolThis place isn’t your typical finger-paint and naptime factory. Her program in Santa Barbara and Eastern Sierra conducts all its classes and lessons outside. The philosophy is simple: By teaching kids to tend a shelter, learn a coyote call, or identify edible plants, you’re also teaching them how to be patient, attentive, and respectful (you like those things!) Here’s how you can incorporate some of her Forest School curriculum into your own wild life.

Make Preschool Prehistoric

Cave kids didn’t need glitter and glue sticks to learn, and neither do yours. According to Grippo, the outdoors was a good enough classroom for eons, and it still holds up today. “I think what’s actually new is this radically different approach that we’ve tried in the fairly recent past of having young children sit indoors for long periods of time and try to study facts,” she says. The school doesn’t reject coloring and crafts, but it when these kids paint a happy little tree — they’re staring at a happy little tree.

Learn To Be Still By Running Around

Nobody learns agility, balance, and strength, by sitting in a school chair for 8 hours. “One of the things that I think gets lost is for a child to be able to sit still or stand still. They actually require a sophisticated level of balance,” says Grippo. “And the only way we get that is by moving.” If you let your kids jump around like a monkey first, they’ll be able to sit quietly for story time later.

Where The Wild Things Are

Classrooms often cause overstimulation — what with all the toys, screaming kids, and one terrified hamster. But, out in the woods, the only chattering is coming from chipmunks. Here preschoolers can develop better patterns of attentiveness. Grippo says it’s not really what they teach, but what they expose their students to that matters. “A great bulk of what we do, probably half the time, is spent really playing in nature’s playground,” says Grippo.

This is something that’s fairly easy to do at home. Step 1: Find some woods. Step 2: Walk into them. Who needs prefab playground equipment when there are trees? Why bother with climbing walls when there are walls to climbs? And there’s one more thing the outdoors has going for it that the indoors doesn’t: You can’t control it. Junior has no choice but to adapt — because whining won’t make the rain stop.

Fire, Good!

It’s never too early for your kid to learn how cool stuff looks burning in a pit. At the Forest School, teachers instruct kids on how to tend and cook over an open fire. The adults get it started and enforce the rules about who can tend the fire and when — but the others are still actively engaged.

The first step is gathering and sorting the wood. This is basically the same kind of pattern recognition exercise you’d find in most mainstream preschools. “It’s more sophisticated, because none of the sticks are identical,” says Grippo. And those pattern games usually don’t end with s’mores.

Gimme Shelter

C’mon, you’re not gonna go all the way into the woods and not build a fort. Grippo says her kids love constructing them. They’ll often go back as a group to see what other people have added, or what has to be rebuilt. If you need a quick stick fort blueprint, check this out. Grippo also suggests letting the kids search for bark and lichen to decorate (Then say, “I lichen what you did with the place.”) Pro tip: Bring a tarp — even outdoor kids hate soggy butts.

Teach Them The Call Of The Wild

Your Pre-K has kids wear vests and hold a rope to stay together. Forest School has hoots and howls.  “We have a game of animal calls that we use throughout the year in our schoolwork. They really help us to be cohesive as a group,” she says. Each call is assigned a different meaning. For example, Forest School kids know the coyote howl means “everyone come back right away,” the crow caw means “freeze,” and the dove coo means “everyone answer back.” Try this at home. You’re teaching your kid how to follow a pattern and also instituting a form of communication for safety. And, there’s the added bonus of convincing everyone in Trader Joe’s your son is a Wolf Boy.