All Kids Need Nature Play

    February 11, 2019
    by Anna Sharratt

    At Free Forest School, we believe all children need access to nature from an early age for healthy physical and emotional development. By making nature play a regular part of childhood, we nurture children’s love of nature and create the next generation of environmental stewards.

    Take a moment to think: What are your fondest childhood memories? Mine include racing bikes around the block with my friends, wading in urban creeks, and camping on family vacations. I’ve asked this question of many adults, and almost without fail, regardless of gender, race, economic background, or the size of their home community, the memories we share are of outdoor adventures.

    Building forts, helping in the garden, climbing trees; when I became a parent, I wanted to give my kids memories like these. Yet for reasons that range from parenting attitudes to institutional inequities to standardized testing, time to play outdoors—once a focal point of childhood for many—has been drastically downsized.

    In 2015, I sent my 4-year-old son to a public pre-k in Brooklyn and was appalled to learn the full-day class was spent entirely indoors—even recess. I watched my son’s excitement about school wane. He needed sunlight, fresh air, and space to grow. All kids do.

    As a freelance writer, I had the freedom to seek another option. I tapped into my background as an Outward Bound instructor to create an outdoor learning experience aimed at young children. In April of 2015, I launched a cooperative, parent-run nature playgroup in Prospect Park. Families came out of the woodwork to participate—and Free Forest School was born!

    Fast forward to today: Seeded by that first playgroup idea, and a conviction that any adult can give the gift of nature connection, Free Forest School has grown into a global nonprofit organization. More than 115 chapters, mostly in North America, are projected to create approximately 150,000 child/nature encounters this year through nature play events on public land. These events, which are free of charge to participants, are made possible by a team of more than 700 volunteers. And because we know not all kids have access to nature nearby and with a parent, we’re piloting programs in public schools in Minneapolis, Brooklyn, and Baltimore.

    Our model centers on community engagement and grassroots organizing. Rather than creating formal programming such as a nature preschool, we focus on teaching the adults already in young kids’ lives—parents, caregivers, school teachers—why nature connection matters and how to make nature play an integral part of a child’s routine.

    Barriers to Nature Play
    The barriers that stand in the way are many. Nature play is crowded out by academic standards and extracurricular activities, helicopter parenting, and screens. Societal inequities mean many families and communities face more profound barriers including lack of access to safe parks and feeling unwelcome on public land.

    At Free Forest School, our aim is to start from a place of recognizing and celebrating diversity. Every culture has a unique and historical connection to nature, and we aim to empower leaders from all backgrounds to create nature access for young children in a way that makes the most sense for their context. We provide expertise on nature play for healthy development, but we know each leader is an expert in their community’s needs and challenges.

    Parent-Child Nature Play Groups
    Our program is built around offering adults three things to make nature play routine in kids’ lives:

    First, parents and caregivers need to understand the benefits of nature play. It’s not just about getting wiggles out. Children are natural scientists; given space to explore, their learning is boundless.

    Second, adults need practical guidance. How to dress for the weather. How much risk to let kids take. How to nurture a love of nature in a highly urban setting. Our interactive training pulls together the collective wisdom of our leaders around the world.

    Last, adults need ongoing support and a sense of community; a place to make mistakes, commiserate and learn from others without judgment. When a mom settles down to nurse her newborn, she knows a friend will chase after her adventurous toddler. On rainy days, a dad still brings his kids to the park because he’s learned from other leaders that it’s possible--and beneficial. We give adults knowledge and guidance by helping them set up local communities and through nurturing online exchange forums.

    The Growth of Free Forest School
    For Free Forest School, growth isn’t just about numbers. Our focus on equity means we’re looking to reach kids whose parents can’t participate. We’re piloting public school partnerships in Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Brooklyn now, working with early childhood and elementary classroom teachers in much the same way we’ve successfully engaged with thousands of parents. A preponderance of research shows nature-based learning offers myriad benefits in school settings, including academic gains and social-emotional wellness. Teachers and school systems are eager for resources and support to bring nature-based learning into their routines.

    In a world where many families lack access to safe parks and kids are increasingly spending time indoors and on screens, Free Forest School is having a profound effect on countless kids and families. We are connecting families to public land and changing the way kids learn about the world. For each of these children, Free Forest School has planted a seed of deep respect for the natural world. Their learning, their joy, their growth are all tied to wild places.

    Anna Sharratt, the founder of Free Forest School, grew up playing outdoors in the urban parks of Minneapolis, MN. She went on to work as an educator, in both outdoor and community-based settings. Across many roles teaching and designing programs, Anna’s focus is engaging leaders and communities at the intersection of nature and equitable social change. Anna lives in Minneapolis with her family.

    Ten go niños pequeños y estoy

    go niños pequeños y estoy muy interesada!


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