Using nature to nurture: Alaska forest schools move the classroom outdoors

One by one, Lia Keller's students hopped down from their parents' minivans or SUVs and scooted across the parking lot of North Bivouac Trailhead off Campbell Airstrip Road. Clad in snowsuits, boots and mittens, the kids, ranging in age from almost 3 to 6, drew pictures on the ground with sticks, caught snowflakes on tongues and chattered to each other about the weather, dogs and the quality of snacks in their pint-sized backpacks.

Keller, founder of The Alaska Forest School and its chief administrator, instructor and trailside cheerleader, gathered her charges in a huddle and asked for some guidance on finding a landmark from the previous week.

"Do you think you could find the tunnel from last time?" she asked the group, kneeling to preschooler level. "Which way do you think we should go?"

Leading the way, kids ran from the trail in an impressive show of directional capability, over fallen logs and snowy underbrush to a downed cottonwood. Pushed from its earthly anchor some time before, the tree's root ball and some surrounding soil remained attached, creating the perfect den for a pack of preschoolers heck-bent on playing "foxes and bears" in the resulting pit.

Parents, some toting smaller siblings, lingered on the fringes, helping when asked but not interfering as Keller queried the kids about flora, fauna and situational awareness of their location. Welcome to one of the most unique classrooms in Alaska.

The concept

As much about place as play, the forest school movement represents a growing method of educating children outside the boundaries of traditional classrooms, an ethos Keller says is important for growing minds and bodies.

"I am passionate about getting children outside," she said as we walked a narrow trail. "Kids have to get out as young as possible so they learn how to explore and foster a deep love of nature and our wild places.

"Not only that, I feel children need more unstructured time. So many kids are on sports teams or in a gym program, but they have little time to direct their own play and learn from those experiences."

Translating play into a series of learning opportunities is firmly entrenched in the global forest school philosophy, as the idea of an all-outdoor education spread from its 19th-century roots in Europe and the United Kingdom to America, Japan and even South Korea. Originally an idea spawned by naturalists and philosophers like William Wordsworth, the culture of forest school and nature education took a back seat to more outcome-based teaching in the 1970s and '80s, but as standardized testing and more rigorous academic criteria emerged in the 1990s, alternative concepts like forest school picked up steam.

According to the Forest School Association, an organization that provides training and assistance to forest school platforms in the United Kingdom, it's critical to provide children with "learner-centered" opportunities to discover more about the natural world, and perhaps most important, about themselves. Not bound to a particular age group or a consistent location, forest schools focus on several goals to encourage long-term relationships with nature and each other. Words like "explore, risk, self-driven learning and resilience" float around the forest school vernacular, making some parents nervous. But, as parent Beka Land said, the program seems like a perfect fit for Alaska.

Land's daughters, 5 and 3, attend Keller's Tuesday Forest School, and she is already lamenting her oldest's entry into kindergarten next year (while looking into alternative programs offered by the Anchorage School District).

"The natural consequences of exploring the outdoors and talking through choices is so valuable," Land said. "As a family, we like the idea of an outdoors-centered program that lets kids pick their own path. I am really sad to think about my daughter entering a traditional school (given) how well she's responded to this program."

It's that combination of nature and choice, and the fact Keller leads by following, that is attractive to Land, an active mother herself who also supports the "any weather, any day" guidelines used by the Alaska Forest School. During this session, wet snow spattered on the tarp the kids strung between a stand of trees for story and snack time, and snowsuits were decidedly muddy after two hours of climbing and sliding in the forest of Far North Bicentennial Park. Nobody cared, however — not the kids, who snuggled under the tarp to hear a story about sea creatures; not the parents, who had heeded Keller's suggestions on appropriate outdoor gear.

Alaska Forest School stays open, rain, shine or blizzard if district schools are operating, and participants spend the entire time outside. Keller totes a large pack dubbed her "Mary Poppins backpack," filled with ordinary items like a first-aid kit, bear spray and water, but also some unexpected tools — a few garden trowels for digging, a length of rope, the tarp, story books, tracking guides and magnifying glasses for exploring on a "micro" level.

What exactly does Forest School do?

"Whatever the kids lead us to do," says Keller. And she's not kidding. I wasn't sure what I was going to see with preschoolers tumbling around the trees for two hours like a pack of undisciplined puppies, but certainly something that looked like the "school" part. But after about 30 minutes of hollering, discovering and exploring that led our little group about 100 yards from the parking lot of North Bivouac, something amazing happened: learning.

Why does snow look like crystals under the frame of a magnifying glass? What happens when you try to climb a tree much taller than your mom and way higher than any recess monitor would ever allow? How can five small kids figure out how to tie up a blue tarp without adult assistance? Every question was filled in with a bevy of others and a lot of "What do you think we should do?" responses that required basic skills of every preschool-aged student -- counting, colors, shapes, letters, all presented in a subtle way to foster other social aptitudes like teamwork and problem-solving.

Keller hopes to expand her current thrice-weekly sessions as programs grow and the concept appeals to more parents weary of standardized testing, reduced recess time, and free play opportunities in the lower grades. For now, though, the kids who attend Alaska Forest School romps are coming away with a better sense of where they fit in the wilderness we call home.

Alaska Forest School Facts

Student age: Kids 3 and older are welcome.

Location: Various sites around Anchorage each week.

Cost: $12 per two-hour session. A discount is available for siblings.

Curriculum: None. Keller may present a theme that includes an activity suggestion and a story, but students drive the session's direction.

Safety: Children are always accompanied by Keller and parents, with discussions about bears, moose and way-finding as part of each session. Making safe choices for exploration is always at the forefront, but Keller advocates kids becoming independent through challenges.

More information: Alaska Forest School operates a Facebook page where class locations are posted and where parents can discover more about this type of education. Keller can also be reached at akforestschool@yahoo.com.

About forest schools: The Forest School Association publishes a comprehensive website about the forest school movement, its history and best practices.

Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children, and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family fun. Connect with her at e.kirkland0@gmail.com.