Days spent outside drawing and playing, making art and watching birds, sitting around a fire telling stories and singing songs -- these may seem like exclusively summer activities for many kids, or even worse, a thing of the past. Fortunately for the children who attend Wauhatchie School, it is neither. The program, which follows the Forest Kindergarten ethos, will be opening a second site at Reflection Riding next semester, as well as expanding the age range.
Jean Lomino, former Education Director and longtime Executive Director for the Chattanooga Nature Center and Reflection Riding, established the program in 2015 with Diana Meadows, director of the Learning Center at Lookout Lake.
“We started on her family property, and that’s just about four miles down the road from [Reflection Riding],” Lomino said. “My grandson was in her care when we started talking about it, and so he was actually in my very first forest kindergarten class in 2015.”
The inaugural class of 2015 spent almost every morning outdoors, exploring their surroundings and learning to ask questions rather than depend on directions from a teacher. Forest school relies on child-led inquiry and place-based education as a curriculum, meaning that kids get to learn about what interests them as well as foster a love of learning that could be squelched in a more structured environment.
“They go and they do what they want to do, and basically they end up making their own little teams,” Lomino said. “They all have their own little projects or games that they’re involved in, and the teachers are there just to watch over them basically -- protect them, supervise them.”
Art is also heavily integrated into the curriculum, whether it be journaling, drawing, or with art supplies brought out by teachers. Lomino noted that oftentimes children don’t even need extra supplies, and will create with what they find in the woods.
The morning of forest kindergarten is spent completely outside, and children who stay for the whole day of the kindergarten program gain the skills needed for first grade preparedness as well, which may involve indoor activities in the onsite classroom. At the Reflection Riding campus children of all ages will be learning more direct skills. While focusing on a different concept each week, they will also participate in long-term projects like tracking migration patterns over the course of the school year. They will learn bushcraft skills, how to work with tools like knives and axes, survival skills, and more.
“It’s that hands on experience that makes the difference,” said Megan Chaney, assistant director of Wauhatchie School. “So when you’re learning those academic subjects like reading and writing and arithmetic you’re applying; you’re doing those hands on experiences that make the connections better. They help push it into your long term memory.”
Lomino has seen first-hand how this kind of learning environment can be beneficial to children; her grandson will be returning for his fourth year of forest kindergarten this school year.
“My middle grandson, who will be turning six next month, he was pretty much my inspiration for forest kindergarten… He’s developed into a little naturalist, I can tell you that for sure. He is very comfortable outside, he knows the names of so many creatures and trees and plants.”
Equal to their objective of teaching children outside is Wauhatchie School’s teacher training program. Since opening their doors in 2015 Lomino has trained 70 teachers from all over the country and the world. She recently completed research with educators in Guangzhou, China, with a written study forthcoming. Whether kindergarten age or retiree age, though, there are plenty of lessons that can be gleaned from the Forest School ethos: to spend as much time in the outdoors as possible, to retain a childlike love of learning, and to never stop exploring.
Spots are still open for this fall. To fill out an application for your child to attend Forest Kindergarten or Forest School, visit the Wauhatchie School website.
About The Author
Bess Turner graduated from Tulane University in 2018 with a BA in English, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies, where she also worked for the Tulane Hullabaloo and the Undergraduate Student Government Sustainability Committee. When she's not writing for Reflection Riding you can find her on the mat, hiking, reading, and searching for the best veggie burger in Chattanooga. You can follow Bess on Instagram @bess_turner