A dozen kindergartners, dressed in brightly colored rain slickers, totter along a gravel path pocked with rain puddles. Two boys splash into an ankle-deep pool and begin to kick the muddy water over the path's steeply sloped embankment.
"We're making a waterfall!" one boy shouts. Teacher Melanie Ferguson, who calls each of the students "friend," stands to the side and watches.
Every weekday, students at Wauhatchie School in Lookout Valley make the quarter-mile walk from their classroom to the wooded lot where they spend three hours in unstructured, experiential play. Also called experiential learning, experiential play is the process of learning through exploration — rather than learning through instruction, the more traditional form of teaching.
This is the foundation of the forest kindergarten concept, a nature-based model of preschool education for children ages 3-6 pioneered in Scandinavia and adopted by a growing number of institutions around the world, including Wauhatchie School.
In didactic learning, as the traditional form of teaching is called, teachers actively guide lessons. In a forest kindergarten, the children are given space to make their own discoveries, which the teachers then use as teachable moments.
For instance, during that rainy walk, one little girl spots a deflated Mylar balloon afloat in Lookout Lake and stops and points. "Is that supposed to be in nature?" Ferguson then asks, prompting a conversation about litter.
Hard skills like numbers and shapes are important components of early education, says Dr. Jean Lomino, director of the school. But, Lomino argues, so are soft skills like leadership, communication and the ability to adapt to one's surroundings, themes she says arise naturally during the school's outdoor learning excursions.
"Rainy days are typically the best days. The colors are more vivid; the smells are more vivid. And what they can do with water!" Lomino says.
She believes that a child's healthy cognitive development is dependent on nature immersion and free play. She is not alone in this belief.
In April, Lomino returned from a two-month stint in Guangzhou, China, after being selected as one of six educators from around the world to act as a consultant for one of China's first forest kindergarten programs. The forest kindergarten concept is beginning to flourish worldwide — thanks in part to Lomino — and is also taking root in the Tennessee Valley.
Forest kindergartens began popping up in Europe in the 1950s, though they received the most notoriety in Germany. A 2013 article in German newspaper Spiegel wondered, "Will the concept of the Waldkindergarten [forest kindergarten] become Germany's next export success?" The article cited more than 1,500 such schools across the country and a budding interest internationally, including a "fledgling interest in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom."
The first forest kindergarten in Tennessee, Wauhatchie School was founded in 2015 in partnership with Lomino and Diana Meadows, whose family owns the 50-acre property where the school sits. In addition to its full- and half-day programs, the private, nonprofit school offers nature-based programs for home-schooled children ages 7-12. It also hosts outdoor-education and forest kindergarten teacher training sessions for educators across the United States.
This training has included teachers from two local public schools: Gilbert Elementary School in LaFayette, Ga., and Red Bank Elementary School in Chattanooga, both of which recently instituted their own forest kindergarten programs.
"If I had a mission, it would be to prove that innovative things don't have to happen in only private or charter schools," says Matt Harris, principal of Gilbert, which launched its forest kindergarten in 2015, becoming the first public school program of its kind in the United States.
In 2017, Gilbert was one of 45 nationwide Green Ribbon award winners, an honor for innovative environmental, nutritional and sustainability teaching.
Gilbert has a total of four kindergarten classes, two of which are forest kindergartens. Its forest kindergartens have two hours of unstructured play outside each day, though all the school's K-5 classes are given at least one hour of outdoor education, in addition to recess, each day. Those more structured nature-based lessons range from the study of native plants to alternative energy.
Whereas research suggests that forest kindergarten graduates have better developed cognitive, physical, creative and social skills than traditional kindergarten graduates, the benefit of outdoor education among older, test-taking students is more quantifiable. For example, in 2005, the State Education and Environmental Roundtable published a five-year study of 12,750 students in grades 2-5 that found that in 96 percent of all cases, students who received environment-based education scored as well or better on reading, math, language or spelling assessments than students who received no environmental education.
"[The benefits] of outdoor education [have] been proven since the 1950s. But it has to be about more than 'let's go hug trees and look at the clouds.' Realistically, it has to be connected to the standards," says Harris, adding that there is a new movement across the country to connect outdoor education with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum.
Gilbert, which is certified by the state as a STEM school, makes this connection through its agriculture and environmental education lab. Last year, third-graders studied compost and vermiculture; fourth-graders tracked wildlife on school property; and fifth-graders built passive solar panels out of plywood and Coke cans.
The school's innovative learning seems to be reflected in its educational standing. Between 2015 and 2016, Gilbert's score on Georgia's College and Career Ready Performance Index climbed from 73.9 to 79.
Harris says he hopes all the recognition opens the door to grant funding to help support the eventual expansion of the school's outdoor education programs, among other school programs.
Aside from how a school is funded, the biggest difference between a private and public school is the flexibility of its curriculum. Students at Wauhatchie have the freedom to develop their own day-to-day course of study, depending on what piques their interest in the forest.
For instance, to follow up the children's game of "making a waterfall" that rainy day at Wauhatchie, teachers might present lessons about the water cycle or soil erosion, Lomino says. The instruction could even encompass a language arts lesson. What sound does a waterfall make? What words can be used to describe what the water does in a waterfall?
Gilbert and Red Bank Elementary schools, however, must adhere to stricter standards, though both still allow two to three hours of unstructured outdoor play every day. The remainder of the day is spent studying math, language arts and social studies.
When Red Bank launched its forest kindergarten program in 2016, principal Haley Brown says, "It was important to do it right. The best way was to baby-step it."
That first year, Red Bank limited the program to just one of its six kindergarten classes. Those children were given two and a half to three hours of outdoor free play each day. Brown recalls one afternoon during that time when the children discovered a long, flat piece of lumber on the property. The children worked together to move the plank over a log, where they began to play on it like a seesaw. Then they grew curious.
"Why does it flop down when the big kid is on one side and not the other?" Brown remembers the kids asking. Soon, the children were experimenting with weight and balance, prompting the teacher to plan a more formalized lesson about measurements and simple machines.
At the end of the school year, Red Bank's traditional kindergarten and its forest kindergarten, which had had only half the amount of formal instructional time, "finished exactly the same academics-wise," Brown says.
Beginning in the 2017 school year, Red Bank plans to expand its forest kindergarten to two classes — not only due to its success, but also due to its demand. Last year, 42 students were signed up by their caregivers for the forest kindergarten, which was more than double the amount of available spaces.
"There are things in your gut you just know are good and better. We didn't get into education to make copies and put desks in a row. Teachers are happier; kids are excited to come to school," Harris says.
The forest kindergarten concept is hinged on a revolutionary approach to education, for which, Lomino admits, there is a learning curve among educators. After all, teachers are trained to write lesson plans and administer tests, Lomino says. But, she adds, "it is astounding what children can accomplish when the teacher stands back."
Over the years, Lomino says, she has watched the world demand more and more from young students. "I can't help but think it all started during the Sputnik era — it was a race. Which country was going to have the most knowledge and become the leader?" she says, referring to the period during the 1950s when anxiety mounted over the perceived technological gap between the United States and the Soviet Union.
But it is a different age, Lomino says.
"We don't have to memorize as much. We can easily access information," Lomino says. "What children need is fresh air. They need exercise and the open sky, where they can think their own thoughts and play their own games."
As the 2017 school year begins, one of her goals is to make outdoor education more accessible for all students in the Tennessee Valley. She hopes to establish partnerships with local land trusts and environmental education organizations. The idea is that these groups would provide sites, Wauhatchie would provide staff, and together they would create access points where students from public schools and child-care centers could be brought once or twice a week for outdoor education.
"The key of success in school is that [students] have to love it. Children [at the kindergarten age] naturally want to learn. Everything is exciting; everything is new. If you want to capture that, you have to help them keep that love of learning," says Lomino, who, along with more and more educators, believes the outdoors is the perfect place to nurture that curiosity. "Nature," she says, "provides a feeling of unlimited possibilities."
Editor's note: This story first appeared in the August 2017 edition of Chatter magazine.