On the first day at this new preschool in Hudson, there were no pencils or papers in sight nor building blocks or board games. Instead, a heavy green tarp attached to the branches of several trees created a canopy for a classroom of sorts, which provided an outdoor base camp from which little ones would learn.
Founders Amanda MacDonald and Jamie Nicholls created this alternative-style preschool for their 2-year-old daughter, Penelope, who is the youngest member of the class.
Inspired by Scandinavian ‘Forest Kindergartens,’ Hudson Forest School is a fully outdoors, play-based program for toddlers and preschoolers aged 3 to 5, with classes three mornings per week. It is child-led and rooted in discovery of the natural world.
Although the teachers had prepared a series of simple circle games and other activities to do under the tent, the kids were eager to get messy and have fun, whatever the weather. “Really, they just like running out in the mulch and the muck,” MacDonald said. “Everybody comes home dirty and happy.”
Beyond the base camp, the children discovered colourful berries — some edible, some poisonous — and set to work climbing over logs, finding weirdly shaped mushrooms, collecting acorns and birch bark, and spinning stories about imaginary worlds in the forest.
Rows of mushrooms jutting out from a fallen tree became the balconies of fairy homes, which the children decorated with garlands of fern fronds. Piles of dirt on the trail became bombs to tiptoe around, until one brave toddler defused them with an artful arrangement of pinecones. A thick birch log became a horse, which transformed into a flying dragon, large enough for the whole class to fly away on.
According to Nicholls, children’s free play in the forest offers more benefits than many adults realize. As the children challenge themselves to run, jump, climb, observe, listen, and imagine, he said children build strength and agility, learn safe limits, and kindle their curiosity about the natural world.
“In many environments children’s play is restricted or led,” Nicholls said. “Forest school is child-centred and play-centred because that’s what is best for children under 6 years of age. Play is the child’s work.”
Classes are held outdoors in all weather in various Hudson-area parks and natural spaces, with a base camp set up for comfort. In warm weather, the base camp may be no more than a tarp to provide shade or shelter from rain. In winter, while children will still spend most of the time outside, the preschool will meet in locations that have an indoor area where children can warm up.
Children do not receive any formal instruction in reading, writing or arithmetic, something that was very welcome to Sabrina Wood, whose youngest son Soren is enrolled in the program.
Wood has three older sons in elementary school, and believes schools tend to introduce academics too early, when children should still be learning primarily through play.
“They have plenty of time to get a more formal education,” Wood said. “We need to let kids be kids.”
Having lived in Europe, where these types of schools are more common, Wood said she jumped at the chance for 3-year-old Soren to learn how to get along with other kids and become less dependent on her, while spending more time outdoors. “Soren loves being outside,” she said. “He’s fascinated with nature, with all the mushrooms and the frogs and the dirt.”
Classes run Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Tuition is $375 per month for one child, with discounts for siblings and parents who volunteer a minimum of three hours per week. Registration is ongoing.
For more information, visit hudsonforestschool.ca.
Forest Schools in Quebec
Forest Schools aren’t new to Canada, but they are not as common here as they are in Europe. According to Forest Schools Canada, these programs are most popular in British Columbia and Ontario. Similar programs in Quebec include:
Le Lion et La Souris in Montreal Adventure School in Mile End
Le jardin d’enfants des racines et des ailes in Ste. Agathe des Monts
Chelsea Forest School in Chelsea
Les Arterres in Wakefield