With our undulating work schedules, we had the ability add a new activity for our daughter two half-days a week: The Child’s Element, a completely outdoor “forest school” for 3-6 year old children. The classes are held in one of Salt Lake City’s local canyons, a reasonable drive from most parts of town but tucked away into the Wasatch front range. The scenery is pure wilderness, with large limestone rocks lining the trails, groves of aspen (my favorite!), and towering evergreens above.
While this particular school is relatively new, the idea of outdoor forest schools has been around in the US and Europe for a while. These schools have origins in Scandinavia, and many modern programs are based on the principles in Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods*. As we’re all aware, people of all ages (including children) spend an increasing amount of time indoors in artificial light and filtered atmospheres. And the screens… the hours spent looking at screens! The movement of outdoor schooling attempts to counteract our current “nature deficit disorder” by giving children dedicated time to simply play in nature. Outdoor schools also largely adopt a philosophy of unstructured time; there is no particular agenda, no standardized tests to take, no homework to complete. Each day may have a theme, but the time is largely free to allow the children to design their own activities. According to this article, the number of outdoor-based preschools has grown 500% since 2012.
I requested to have our daughter start with The Child’s Element this past summer (during which time an even wider age range is allowed) despite the fact that she wasn’t even quite the minimum age of 3. We weren’t sure at first how she would take to the hiking, the dirt, and the exposure to elements, but she absolutely LOVES it. It seems that every day, she wakes up and asks if today is a “nature school” day. On the drive to the trail head drop-off point, I can feel her anticipation. When we arrive, she bobs her cranes her neck from the back seat to look for her teachers and other schoolmates. Then she shrinks down. “I don’t want to go,” she says with a smile on her face. Of course she wants to go, but she’s got that feeling. It’s the feeling where you’re excited and nervous with anticipation before you do something you really like.
You know what else I noticed? After the very deserved rest she takes post-class, she continues a style of creative play at home. She asks less about playing with her tablet that day. We draw letters on the patio using sticks from the yard dipped in water as paint. She rides her scooter around the house taking “trips” to nature school or the grocery store. It’s made me think: when’s the last time I stepped away from technology for even half a day? We haven’t even spent a night out camping for months. I miss outdoor climbing and road trips… sometimes.
It’s an amazing thing to be inspired by your toddler, to have them teach you something about life. Next month, we’re headed off for a road trip of sorts to northern Arizona. There’s no agenda, but there will be lots of time outside and lots of time with no internet. I can’t wait for the change!
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