GOSHEN, Ky. – Thrive Forest School in Oldham County educates children in a non-traditional way. That’s because this preschool allows children to go at their own pace in the classroom, which is set amongst the trees at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve.
“We give kids just a chance to be kids,” said Director Ryan Devlin. He founded the school in 2018 when he wanted his own son, Ferris, to attend a forest school. “We hold class outdoors in the rain, in the snow, year round,” said Devlin. He says there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices. However, if the weather is hazardous, then the class does move indoors. Forest schools are more common in Europe, but have grown in popularity in the United States.
“The biggest thing I think that sets a forest school apart from a traditional indoor preschool is this development of self-confidence, creative problem solving, and resilience. When you’re outside every day in the elements, you’re learning things through hands-on experience,” Devlin told Spectrum News 1.
The curriculum is emergent, meaning the 3- to 6-year-old students create their own lesson plan by doing. Thrive has two educators per class, with a low child-to-teacher ratio of six to one. Educators ask questions to encourage curiosity and critical thinking. “What they need to be developing right now is a foundation of cooperative play, creative problem solving, [and] the social and emotional development. So while we're not teaching them as in somebody's talking at them…we are helping them to learn. We're helping them to become their own teachers,” Devlin said.
Even though the classroom isn’t academic, Devlin said the students are learning about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) concepts every day.
“We've got a creek that flows through our classroom, and a couple days ago kids were dropping different objects in the water, to see what sinks and what floats. So they're learning about buoyancy and density and water flow and gravity through experience, not through a book,” Devlin explained.
With no toys, the kids instead use tools and objects from nature that foster creative learning. “So a stick could be a doll. It could be a sword. It could be a lightsaber. It could be a dragon. It could be any number of things, and when children are using their imaginations like that, they are fostering a love of learning that will really serve them well when they enter a traditional primary school,” Devlin said.
A 2019 study from Loughborough University in England found that children at the forest schools felt more independent and grew to appreciate the outdoors. It also revealed learning outside the classroom can influence children’s attitudes towards learning and allow them to develop skills such as social, confidence building, problem solving and creativity.
After one-year, mother Ericka Eppehimer has seen a change in her 5-year-old daughter Nora, who attends Thrive Forest School two days a week. “We went hiking not that long ago, and she was just such a leader. She was in charge of me, and she was showing me what type of trees we were seeing, and what deer tracks looked like,” Eppehimer explained. “Yea, just her confidence and leadership skills, her communication skills, with other kiddos, [have] really been positive.” An education through experience that can make all the difference.
“There’s going to be plenty of years to sit behind a desk and read from books and work on iPads. What we have here for a couple of years at Thrive is, I think, a really special opportunity for children to just connect with nature and to connect with themselves,” Devlin said. Thrive Forest School costs up to $524 per month for five days a week, but there are two- and three-day options. The non-profit also has financial aid opportunities. If you’re interested to learn more and apply visit their website.