Forest Kindergarten: Into the woods with preschool explorers

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

The sun was breaking through the clouds on the misty December morning that I visited Wauhatchie School in Lookout Valley. I put on my boots for the short walk into the woods where a dozen or so young children in bright raincoats were exploring and playing. I had arrived at Chattanooga’s first Forest Kindergarten and was greeted by a little guy who looked up at me with bright blue eyes and asked, “Do you want to watch me climb a tree?” And, of course, I did.

I was also welcomed by Jean Lomino, director of the school that she launched this year with Diana Meadows, CEO and owner of the Wauhatchie School property. They were both watching with keen eyes as their Forest Kindergarten participants meandered and played.

After a quick snack, the children cheered when Lomino suggested walking to the creek. There, some children mixed mud and water in large buckets while others walked in and across the water. Someone found an Osage orange fruit-and called it by name-to toss in the water and mud. Others worked on a mud wall, part of a creek-side fort. These miniature explorers, layered in raingear and warmth, were muddy and wet-and as happy as any kid aged 4 to 6 years could be.

Forest Kindergarten is based on the German concept of “waldkindergarten,” meaning “forest nursery,” and it is gaining popularity in the United States.

Typically serving children ages 3 to 6 years, Forest Kindergarten takes place entirely outdoors, rain or shine. Teachers supervise students in their explorations and play, but do not lead.

“Every discovery in nature is exciting for children,” Lomino said. “The teacher’s role is to encourage that excitement and assist them in their discoveries.”

The landscape and seasons create the curriculum for Forest Kindergarten, according to Lomino. Students find and learn about seedpods, fossils, wildflowers, earthworms, and fish and crayfish in the creek. They have their favorite trees (especially the sycamore tree they pass each day), sing songs about dirt, and draw on tree trunks and rocks with chalk in the rain.

This is all a dream come true for Lomino, an educator of 30-plus years with a doctorate in leadership with an emphasis in environmental education, as well as a former director of the Chattanooga Nature Center. Becoming a grandmother has also been a key motivator for her Forest Kindergarten efforts, she said.

The impetus to create a Forest Kindergarten program in Chattanooga, Lomino said, was inspired by a visit to the Nature Explore Classroom at Highland Plaza United Methodist Preschool in Hixson. There, she received a book by Sara Knight: “Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years.”

“I really wanted to provide an opportunity for young people to learn, play and make connections with the outdoors-that’s how kindergarten originally began,” she said.

Prior to launching the Forest Kindergarten program at Wauhatchie School, Lomino spent one week at the first Forest Kindergarten in the United States: Cedarsong Nature School near Seattle, Washington. She trained with the school’s founder, Erin Kenny.

“I knew when I saw the school that this is what children need,” she said. “Research shows that long-term exposure to the outdoors-particularly in one place-is the most effective way to develop a strong connection to the outdoors.”

In addition to her work at Wauhatchie School, Lomino has been consulting with teachers at Gilbert Elementary in Lafayette, Georgia, to start the first public school Forest Kindergarten program in the country.

“Walker County is on fire for outdoor education,” Lomino said. “Matt Harris, the principal at Gilbert Elementary, is so supportive, and that is key.”

She is also teaching nature day camps for home-school students ages 7 to 12 on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Wauhatchie School property.

So far, Lomino said the Forest Kindergarten program has exceeded her expectations.

“I was prepared for issues, like a child who didn’t want to be outside in the rain or something like that, but the kids love it,” she said. “And there was always a concern about safety, like falling or playing with sticks, but that has not been an issue, either.”

Forest Kindergarten at Wauhatchie School currently meets Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to noon, with a class offering for younger students on Mondays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. In 2016, Forest Kindergarten is expected to meet Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon, with a class offering for younger students on Mondays and Wednesdays.

To learn more, visit the Wauhatchie School website.

Jenni Veal enjoys writing about outdoor adventures in the southeastern United States. Visit her website for outdoor family travel adventures. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.