On a recent morning in the Twin Lakes area, a group of kids climbed a root wad, pretending it was an engine. They walked under devil’s club and through ferns, looking for blueberries. They dug in a creek to see what treasures they could find.
They’re familiar with that little patch of land — its creek, its fallen trees, its berry bushes — as they visit several times per week, rain or shine, as part of former middle school teacher Jennifer Walker’s “Forest Song Nature School.” The school is a “forest kindergarten” program Walker started to help provide three- to six-year-olds — her own son among them — with nature-based early education. The program hails from Europe, where there are a number of them, and are now spreading to the United States.
Walker taught middle school language arts for seven years, resigning to be a stay-at-home mom when her son Beckett was born. For a little more than two years, she operated a small unlicensed daycare (regulations allow daycares to be unlicensed if there are fewer than four kids per unrelated adult).
As a day care provider, she’d been thinking about all the preschool and school options for her son, Beckett, age three, and researching nature-based schools.
“I just really kind of saw a need for this type of program,” she said.
The forest kindergarten aims to immerse kids in nature on a regular basis, going inside only in extreme weather. It also aims to provide them with “unstructured, authentic play,” to follow the kids’ lead and interest, and to ask lots of questions “to get the kids thinking, wondering, theorizing,” Walker said. There’s no agenda or set curriculum, though Walker and fellow teachers and parents Kara Hollatz and Harmony Roll all have experience as educators.
“We’re calling it a school, but we’re not operating it as a school,” Walker said. “We’re not pursuing licensing at this point.”
Hundreds of forest kindergartens operate in Germany, where they’re called “waldkindergartens.” Walker, Roll and Hollatz also cite more local advocates for outdoor education as influences — Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” and Jennifer Aist in Anchorage, who wrote “Babes in the Woods: Hiking, Camping and Boating with Babies and Young Children.”
Alaska Association for the Education of Young Children executive director Joy Lyon said the program sounds exciting.
“There are so many benefits to getting children out of doors,” she said, adding that many books in AEYC’s lending library have to do with just that. “We live in this beautiful rainforest, and such a wealth of rich outdoor experience is possible for us, and yet we do find that parents and early educators don’t get out of doors as much as children really need to grow, and thrive, and have that connection with the natural world established early on.”
Being outside is both calming and stimulating for kids, she said, adding that it can help kids with social and emotional struggles as well.
On an average day, kids and teachers leave Walker’s house in the Mountain View area above Twin Lakes a little after 9 a.m.; they stay in the woods until noon.
“Because they know those areas, they know where they want to play and engage,” Walker said.
Walker, who grew up in rural Colorado, had a childhood a bit like that herself.
“For the first nine years of my life, I lived in a dome … a 30 minute drive away from town,” Walker said.
The dome, she said, “looked like a golf ball with the bottom chopped off.”
“I was immersed in nature on a daily basis. That’s part of why I love being out there, and why I feel so passionate about getting kids out there ... It has a large part to do with who I am today,” she said.
Walker is the director of Forest Song Nature School. Hollatz worked in the Tlingit Culture, Language and Literacy program at Harborview; Roll, who has been an elementary and middle school teacher, is studying for her principal certification, and started the Juneau Outdoor Family Network.
“We’re kind of kindred spirits,” Roll said of Walker.
Being out in the woods is good for parents and teachers, too, Roll said.
“If we get outside, the day can be totally turned around, and it feels like we have conquered something,” she said.
Hollatz grew up in the Twin Lakes area.
“This is where I always played as a child,” she said. “This is such a cool spot.”
Roll’s oldest child, Ollie, started first grade this week, but he’s been participating in the forest kindergarten. His favorite thing, he said, is finding quartz in the creek.
“You can find lots of quartz in it,” he said. “There are lots of rocks, and I use the big ones to shape the quartz like diamonds.”
Forest Song is operating between 9 a.m. and noon or 1 p.m. (timing is optional) Monday and Wednesday; soon, it will transition to Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Walker said.
They are accepting enrollment, Walker said, and have an open house from 1-3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 22. They’re also planning on transitioning to nonprofit status and are looking for board members.
“I’m just really excited,” Walker said. “I feel like this is a really good opportunity for the kids here in Juneau.”
• Contact Juneau Empire outdoors writer Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Find out more about Forest Song Nature School at http://forestsongnatureschool.blogspot.com.