After four years of research and preparation, Stevie Lee created her own preschool program. This isn’t just any preschool: it’s an outdoor-only, rain-or-shine program for children to learn practical skills to eventually use in a regular classroom setting.
Through her research, Lee, a sports and recreation leadership graduate student, discovered that most families in Scandinavian countries send their children to “forest school,” where they learn practical life skills in the outdoors until age seven.
Lee wanted to start small at first, developing a pilot program last summer to test this method of schooling in the Shenandoah Valley. “The Little Explorers Club” was born, which will become the “Appalachian Forest School,” a year-long preschool, this fall.
“The idea behind being outside, in all different kinds of weather, falling down, working with friends, is that it builds resilience and problem-solving skills in the kids so when they do go to school in the traditional classroom, they can apply those skills to math and science and things like that,” Lee said.
Lee talked to friends of hers and posted flyers around Harrisonburg to spread the word about the school. However, she credits word of mouth to her completely full summer roster.
Ashley Taylor Jaffee, an associate professor of social studies education at JMU, discovered the preschool through a flyer at Greenberry’s Coffee Co. Despite her initial nerves about possible dangers that could happen in the forest, she was excited for her daughter, Naomi, to join after Lee answered every question.
“All the positive outcomes outweighed the risks, but I had to sort of take the leap to put my kid in an environment that I’m not super comfortable with, to reap all the benefits that the Valley has to offer,” Jaffee said.
Jaffee noticed a change with Naomi’s communication and confidence upon completing the program. Her daughter would even show her family the hikes they took and what they learned about nature.
The pilot program lasted from early June to early August. For two days a week, children would meet Lee in downtown Harrisonburg, pile into a van and head to various forests. Typically, they chose to visit George Washington National Forest, only a 20-minute drive away. Lee said the children would request road trip music along the way — anything from the Irish traditional song “Rattlin Bog” to “Hair Up” by Justin Timberlake.
“Imagine a 12-passenger van full of car seats,” Lee said. “It’s so precious.”
Each day brought something new, from learning about deer tracks to climbing rocks and visiting streams. But every day, Lee and the children built tents for their rest time, followed by story time with books relating to the outdoors. A favorite among the kids was “Goodnight Campsite.”
“Our society has a limited view of what three-year-olds are capable of, but this summer on several occasions, the group hiked three miles every day,” Lee said. “They are capable of so much, it’s really, really impressive. But how would we ever know if we never give them the chance?”
One of Lee’s favorite parts about starting the program was watching kids’ growth from the beginning of the summer until the end. Most of the children were nervous about being outside all day but learned to embrace the bugs, mud and all that nature has to offer. All the children who attended the pilot program are returning next summer, and many have signed up for Lee’s full-year preschool program next fall.
“The best part of starting the forest school has been giving kids a sense of place, and to give them unstructured play in the woods — because that can have such an impact on the rest of their lives,” Lee said. “It’s the purpose behind what I do.”
Sarah Sutt, a parent of the pilot program, loved being able to expose her son to activities she can’t normally. Her son, Hawkin, now points out different trees and frogs he learned about over the summer.
“It’s not every day that my husband and I can get him outside, and I feel like this gives him what I wish I could offer, but I’ve got to do day-to-day activities,” Sutt said. “He gets to have this experience that I can’t organize every week. I wouldn’t trust just anyone to send my kid off into the forest with all day — Stevie’s the whole package.”
Before the program officially began, Lee and the children planted a tree together. They watered it daily, and by the end of the summer, they showed their families its growth. The tree’s growth was symbolic with the children’s development.
“We showed them the tree’s going to grow, the kids are going to grow and this tree is something they can come back to for the rest of their lives,” Lee said. “They can see how it’s grown and changed and how their lives have changed. The kids cared about this tree, and as the teacher, that’s an easy parallel to draw about taking care of the Earth and the benefits from that.”
Moving forward, Lee plans to hire a second teacher to accomodate more children. While she’s looking forward to next summer, both Lee and families are eager to spend an entire academic year at the Appalachian Forest School. For the full year-long program, Lee plans to work with a local campsite to provide cabins for the children to stay in during the winter. Her goal is to also double the current enrollment she had for the summer program.
“I wanted to start this program as a resource for families in Harrisonburg to have access to a program that doesn’t otherwise exist here, so my hope and my mission of the school is to captivate and cultvate kids through experiences in the outdoors,” Lee said. “My hope is that parents in Harrisonburg will also see that as important and valuable — I’ll be here to run the school as long as they do.”
Contact Andrea Brusig at email@example.com. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.