There’s a new preschool program opening at Woodcock Nature Center this fall. Dubbed the “Little Forest Folk” program, the new preschool will bring nature-focused learning in a safe, supportive environment to children ages 3-½ to 5. With the creation of Little Forest Folk, Woodcock Nature Center (WNC) joins only a handful of programs for preschoolers in Connecticut where learning occurs almost entirely outdoors

The new program will offer a format inspired by the “forest kindergarten” model. Forest school programs have been popular in places like Germany and Finland for decades and WNC leaders say the concept is gaining popularity rapidly in the United States.

“The children of Little Forest Folk will have a unique opportunity to learn through discovery, play and their natural world,” says program creator and WNC educator Jennifer Bradshaw. “Research shows that children who learn in a forest school environment gain confidence, self-awareness, creativity and excitement about learning. They also learn appreciation and respect for nature as well as each other.”

Little Forest Folk will take place entirely outdoors between September and June (with a few exceptions for extreme weather) and allow the children’s interests and curiosity to lead daily activities and inform their reading, writing and math lessons. Children will make use of an outdoor classroom and be encouraged to climb, adventure and explore the 149 acres of the Woodcock Nature Center preserve. The WNC property includes woodland forests, swamps, streams and a pond. Daily practices may include hiking, building, craft-making, journaling, cooking by fire and using tools, all while learning about local ecology, geology, plants and wildlife.

In its pilot school year, Woodcock plans to accept only eight Little Forest Folk participants. The program, led by Bradshaw with one additional support educator, will take place three mornings per week. “It’s crucial that the program be limited in size so that we can focus on the needs of each child as we explore our outdoor classroom through unstructured play, healthy risk taking and exploratory learning,” she notes.

The pilot program at Woodcock also takes inspiration from programs in the Pacific Northwest, like Cedarsong Nature School in Washington state, which have garnered national attention and fueled a deepened interest in “schools without walls” where activities take place solely outdoors and focus on nature. According to WNC, reports that early studies and parent feedback from established forest school programs report increases in self-confidence, independence, coordination, motivation and concentration, in addition to other personal and academic benefits for the participants.

“Parents are increasingly appreciating the value of early nature-based, student-directed education,” says Woodcock Nature Center executive director Lenore Eggleston Herbst. “I’m thrilled that Woodcock will be introducing this type of learning to the youngest members of our community. I could not be prouder of Jen and our team of educators who are committed to being at the forefront of nature-based education.”

Applications for enrollment in the 2018-19 Little Forest Folk program are being accepted now through April 19. Classes will be held runs Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m.-12:30 p.m., September to June. Please visit Woodcock Nature Center’s website for important information and to apply.