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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / With the Tennessee River Gorge beyond Susie Grant's class enjoys a snack before heading into the forest. The River Gorge Forest School will be opening in the fall, but they are also holding small classes now. It's an entirely outdoor program for kids aged 2.5-6.

Situated against the Prentice Cooper State Forest and surrounded by 26,000 acres of semi-protected land, the setting of River Gorge Forest School spans a lot further than typical school campuses.

The school, opening this fall, offers preschool and kindergarten for kids aged 2 1/2 to 6 years with curriculum based on what the students observe and their natural curiosity, said Susanna Fussell Dodson, one of the school's three co-founders.

The programs are fully outdoors with shelters nearby in case of inclement weather, and the school focuses on holistic development of children through behavioral, emotional and physical development along with academics.

"It's a great program, too, for kids when you're trying to build both fine motor and gross motor skills, because they're navigating boulders, they're crossing streams, but then they're also taking a deep dive, a look into the minutiae of even micro-ecosystems of the forest," Dodson said. "But they're outside all day, they are moving throughout their environment instead of being forced to sit inside unnaturally still for extended periods of time, so their bodies are getting stronger, they're finding their center of balance, and it really overall promotes a much healthier lifestyle from the get-go."

Ahead of opening in the fall, the school began piloting the program in January with two families, including Dodson's, but initial class sizes come fall will be seven children in preschool and seven in kindergarten. For kindergarten, the school classifies as a home school tutorial program under a Nashville umbrella school called The Farm School, and families will need to register with The Farm School to receive credit.

Susie Grant, teacher and co-founder of the school, said a main difference between a forest school and traditional school setting is giving children a say in what they are studying. She said earlier this year students became interested in tent caterpillars after seeing them everywhere.

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River Gorge Forest School opens

"So I didn't necessarily come in saying 'Oh, we're going to study caterpillars today.' That they were there, it was something that caught the children's attention, and they were extremely interested in them and talking about what did they eat, where did they live," Grant said. "So we could look around and find 'What do we think they're going to eat?' I'm taking what they're interested in, and not necessarily giving them the answers, but helping them find a way to discover the answer on their own, as best they can."

From there, Grant incorporated academic concepts like counting and graphing the caterpillars students found and reading "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to compare a fictional story to what the students saw in front of them.

Dodson said the forest school model of child-led and play-based learning builds on students' curiosity and desire to learn.

"I think it's important that because they are dictating the direction of the learning, it's reducing the stress and the pressure on them and then also simultaneously empowering them to become these lifelong learners and find joy in what they're learning and discovering. I think that's just really amazing," Dodson said.

Grant said that she is a big supporter of hands-on learning and that the environment of the school will provide that for students.

"I think forest school is good for kids emotionally, I think it's good for their physical well-being, I mean they're out in the sunshine, they're getting that vitamin D and things, and we're in a beautiful place," Grant said. "This is a very biodiverse region and there's a lot for these kids to be able to discover and it's fun to see their eyes light up, and they're more likely to remember something that they have discovered and found and been able to feel and to touch than just something that they see in a book or something that they hear about."

Both the preschool and kindergarten programs charge tuition, with the cost of preschool tuition depending on the number of days a child attends each week. Applications for the school can be found on its website at rivergorgeforestschool.com/apply.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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