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What 21st CCLCs Can Learn From Forest Schools

If you, like the Y4Y team, caught the Hickory Hill Nature School (HHNS) featured on a national morning show this spring, you might have been bitten by the nature school bug. The school’s founder, executive director and lead teacher, Stacey Gummey, was kind enough to grant us an interview and offer her thoughts on how time outdoors can offer 21st CCLC students time away from screens — and a magical perspective on inquiry-based learning. [Podcast]

Y4Y: Ms. Gummey, we’d love to first give you an opportunity to share a little with our audience about your school, its founding philosophy and what your program looks like on a daily basis.

SG: Thanks so much for having me. As you mentioned, my name is Stacey Gummey and I am the founder of Hickory Hill Nature School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. We are the first Forest Kindergarten in the U.S. to be both Cedarsong accredited and state licensed! Forest kindergartens are documented to have begun in the 1950s. There are so many interesting studies published about the overall greater social, emotional and physical health in countries where forest kindergartens are prominent, such as Finland, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, to name a few. I believe this pedagogy has taken shape in the U.S. because of parents realizing that we all learn differently and it’s important to value a different way of learning and to advocate for our children.

A typical day begins at 9:30 to 9:45 for drop-off. Our parents are in and out in a very smooth transition. I greet the children while my other teacher or teachers are down in our welcome space where the children gather until everyone has arrived. We then check that everyone is dressed properly and is comfortable, and make sure anyone who needs the bathroom takes that opportunity. We then have Morning Meeting, where we sing a morning song and greet everyone by name. Anyone can share at this point, which they all love to do, and then I ask an inquiry-based question like “What ideas do we have today?” or “I already heard some chatter earlier about X, Y, Z,” or “You all seem like you are ready to go!” Curriculum arises from what nature inspires and from children’s observations and explorations.

Then from 9:45 to 11:30, we have unstructured and uninterrupted time to play, create and explore! 

From 11:30 to 12:00 we have another bathroom opportunity, and the children eat the lunches they’ve brought.

Again from 12:00 to 1:30, we enjoy unstructured and uninterrupted time to play, create and explore! 

Then at 1:30 we meet parents for pickup.

Our tenets are:

  1. Full nature immersion. We are outside all day, in all weather, all year. 
  2. Child-led flow learning. We follow the children’s lead on their interests daily.
  3. Inquiry-based teaching style. We ask questions that require children to think about the questions they may have instead of instantly answering questions they more than likely know the answer to. This helps children come to a greater thought process with their work and play. 
  4. Child-inspired documentation and emergent curriculum. As teachers, we observe and document the day through photos and journaling conversations the children have and what they did that day. This helps us create a monthly PowerPoint presentation that I share with families to show what the children learn or teach others. These are a great demonstration of how we all communicate, collaborate and learn together. 
  5. Place-based education. This idea is to have everyone who attends HHNS feel connected to our space, each other and nature. We work as a group to create spaces on the preserve that speak to us. We clear brush, create trails, build structures, create names for spaces and so much more!
  6. Small class sizes. Our maximum number of students per day is 12, with two or three teachers, depending on the ages and needs of our students. We split into two groups after Morning Meeting, which gives our groups, at most, a 6-to-1 children-to-teacher ratio.

Y4Y: We know that this work in better connecting students with the outdoors is gaining traction. What sort of work outside of your own school is taking this movement in the direction it needs to go?

SG: I am pairing up with the Boys & Girls Club to come to them and work with their students. We are in the beginning stages and are working on what the best fit is during this pandemic. My end goal is to be able to offer a week-long summer camp for this group of children where they can take back their childhood, feel safe, and understand that there is so much more out there. We want to model and mentor how to connect to nature on many different levels and emphasize that nature is everyone’s home. That’s a quote my daughter came up with when we left my school after setup one day. It has stuck with me ever since. She was seven at the time and now she’s almost 11!

I, personally, believe that the pandemic has made many people think about life differently. Schools have been a hot topic of debate around air quality, enough square footage and many other mitigating concerns. Outdoor spaces have given parents, teachers, schools and students a sense of feeling “safe.” This is not a word I use loosely.

I’m also currently working on a committee with a few key people to help states with their local legislators and state licensing organizations to work together to rewrite licensing regulations for outdoor programs like ours. There are many folks in states all over the U.S. that are working toward this goal. We are still reaching out to like-minded individuals. The more folks we have to collaborate with, the stronger the movement will become. This process has begun in Washington and Colorado, which is so exciting!! This will help every program become more equitable and accessible for everyone!

Y4Y: Thank you for bringing up “equity.” Access to the cost-free outdoors should not be so disparate, but it seems to be. In your work, what kind of successful partnerships have you observed that give urban students more opportunity for their time in the sun (or the rain, or the snow…)?

SG: I feel that programs like the Boys & Girls Club (BGC), YMCA and various local community partners are a great place to understand how to be a champion for getting everyone outside and getting involved. It begins with helping to educate families. This can mean modeling programs in a workshop, inviting groups out to meet at a local park and lead a plant walk, or simply offering scholarships to local families. These practices can open doors for so many, as well as continue to build a safe, loving and inclusive community.

HHNS gives two full scholarships annually that include all gear for the year. This has always been very important to me and has been one more key to our success. However, I realize this just isn’t enough, which is why I have partnered with the BGC. I’m hoping to expand my reach in our community and share that there are programs like ours out there.

I think that every state’s local Parks and Recreation Department could be a great connection for entities like the BGC, YMCAs and local community organizations like 21st CCLC programs. It’s also a great idea for 21st CCLC programs to do some due diligence in connecting with Forest kindergartens and nature-based preschools in their area to begin to build that community and possibly partner up. Anything is possible if we connect with the right people and collaborate.

Y4Y: Just as a reminder, Y4Y is a professional development resource for 21st CCLC programs, so that is always our lens when we speak with subject matter experts. What simple steps for facilitating nature experiences do you suggest for our educators who likely don’t share your extensive experience teaching outdoors?

SG: This is a great question that some just aren’t comfortable asking or know where to begin. The first thing to know is that there are so many amazing training opportunities in the U.S. For example, Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS), the American Forest Kindergarten Association (AFKA) and Natural Start Alliance are just a few great places to gather information on training opportunities and guidance. I am the vice president of AFKA and often do Zoom chats, conferences for ERAFANS and provide connections to help folks begin their journey. Most states offer a Master Naturalist course also, which I strongly recommend and completed myself. They offer scholarships too! Sometimes it just takes one person to set the intention of ideas of ways you can enrich your program to get everyone else hooked. I always advise that it never hurts to ask the question and there are no wrong questions.

I truly believe that using our six tenets is only the beginning to comprehending a forest kindergarten. As a reminder, these [tenets] are full nature immersion, child-led flow learning, inquiry-based teaching style, child-inspired documentation and emergent curriculum, place-based education and finally, small class sizes.

For nature immersion, not everyone has a nature space in their school. However, we can bring the outside in by planting, making mud pies, opening the windows, doing science experiments, studying habitats and partnering up with a local park or program that can facilitate outdoor space, even if that’s only once a week. Some schools have instituted “Forest Fridays” and have partnered up with a local park, school or museum to spend the whole day in that space. What an incredible idea!

To instill child-led flow learning, we need to understand what this means. Also referred to as interest-led or child-driven, their exploration, play and discovery becomes the children’s curriculum. This all depends on the season, weather, loose parts like flowers and acorns, accessible spaces, flora, fauna and so much more! Deep learning and authentic play take place when a child can follow their interests naturally.

Inquiry-based teaching style is probably the tenet I personally use most. I have found that usually children know the answers to their questions or to the subject they are interested and curious about. We ask open-ended questions or a leading question that really has no wrong answer. This sparks conversations, conclusions and continual learning. By observation, teachers can prompt children by asking a simple question like “I see you are lifting up the stones; I wonder what you are trying to find?” instead of saying “I bet you are looking for the long-tailed salamanders again.” You see, they remember what they have observed earlier and want to keep building that connection of interest and knowledge because they are following their own flow.

Child-inspired documentation or emergent curriculum is how we measure learning for our students. Emergent curriculum involves organically developed activities, games and conclusions that children create during uninterrupted and unstructured play. I ask all teachers to journal while observing. This is a great tool to document exact conversations, the weather, who was there that day, developing friendships and fun games or play that was created. As I mentioned, condensing this documentation into a presentation is a good way for us to connect monthly with families.

Place-based education is so important as we all need to feel safe and connected to our version of nature. For my program, we have seven acres of trails, meandering streams, several stone and sand beaches, beautiful flora and fauna and animals to boot! The children, along with teachers, have worked hard to carve out special spaces that the children then name. We have “The Village,” which is in the Chinese fir tree forest, then we have the “Mud Kitchen,” and you can only imagine what that entails. There is our space for Morning Meeting, where we begin our day. We also have the “Fairy House,” which is a little playhouse that my friend donated where we journal and sing. The list goes on and on, as you can imagine. Children will develop a sense of love and belonging when they are connected to their spaces. Especially if they feel they, themselves, have created something in that space.

Finally, small class sizes promote deeper bonds between children and teachers — who have time to be more present. This reduces stress throughout the day, and ensures less impact on the nature space we are in.

Y4Y: Let’s talk about student voice and engagement. One of our newer resources at Y4Y is a course on student voice and choice. Can you share what you’ve discovered about student-driven inquiry in your program and how 21st CCLC program professionals can keep this priority at the center of their activities outdoors?

SG: As you now know, there is no prescribed curriculum in forest kindergarten. This goes back to one of our six tenets, child-led flow learning, which we know means “their choice.” I feel that every child has their own Individualized Education Program, or IEP, at forest kindergarten. This means that they figure out what their inspired interests are naturally by observation, exploration and experimentation that then promote this deep learning, connections and understanding. As teachers, we need to understand that all people have a unique learning style that is “their own.” It is also helpful to remember that teacher-led instruction isn’t the only way to teach. As this approach expands, you will observe that the children have more confidence, think critically, can communicate more clearly and learn to resolve conflicts. There are so many important life skills that emerge as students find their voice. It’s so important that we listen.

Y4Y: We have learned that virtual learning is not going away, even though we’ve also learned that screen time has its costs on our students. Do you have thoughts on how best to reconcile the best of the digital wave of the future and digging in the mud?

SG: I am a fan of balance. I have seen so many wonderful opportunities because of technology. However, I have also observed a big disconnect with nature, play and communication with the world because of technology. With this said, we all need to decompress, and nature does this effortlessly and it’s free in so many ways. For friends in urban areas, look to local parks, YMCAs, schools or BGCs. Many of these can point anyone in the right direction. It’s also a great idea for schools to send a printout or email with a list of local places that welcome everyone for a little nature outing. Sometimes folks just don’t know to seek it out. Communication and encouragement are everything.

Y4Y: Do you have any final words of wisdom for 21st CCLC programs hoping to expand their outdoor offerings?

SG: Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone in this field. Knowledge is power. We all want to share, model and encourage anyone who shares a love for getting children out in nature. I have found that there is always someone who is more than happy and willing to share helpful information on how to get started.

Every child deserves to feel loved, heard, accepted and understood.

Ms. Gummey is a certified Forest Kindergarten Teacher and a trained Pennsylvania Master Naturalist. Her training and experience reflect extensive expertise in both early childhood development/education and natural studies.