A glimpse inside Ann Arbor’s Forest School

. February 1, 2017.
Audrey, 3, from Canton enjoying the winter weather at school.
Audrey, 3, from Canton enjoying the winter weather at school.

“Let’s go to the porcupine trees!” a child shouts. It’s 8:30am and the students of the Ann Arbor Forest School are excited for another day of outdoor learning and exploration.

Under the large conifer trees the preschoolers pick up sticks to draw circles on the ground while closely examining the color of pine needles. It’s a windy morning and the children— bundled up in boots, hats, and winter coat — will spend the entire day outside learning about the natural world.

Play-based education and community projects

At Washtenaw County’s first forest preschool, children gain life and kindergarten-readines skills by attending school entirely outdoors. In the summer, the day could be spent digging up rocks or harvesting from the community garden, while in the winter they could be sledding or helping elderly neighbors shovel their driveway. Even when temperatures fall into the teens children are outdoors, donning snowsuits, goggles and face masks,
eating lunch in a winter tent, but napping indoors. Students play outside in 20-minute increments with no exposed skin and only on days when the temperature remains below-zero-degree will the children remain inside all day.

Every weekday morning, Tara Habeck, the founder and teacher at the school, opens her home and backyard to six students ages 3 to 6. Wearing a widebrimmed khaki hat, she leads the children through nearby Buhr and County Farm Parks. “Everything is enhanced when the kids are outside. Opportunities for learning abound, health is improved, and relationships are stronger. Besides, it’s more fun,” says Habeck.

This particular day, Habeck walks the children to Cobblestone Farm to feed the barn animals. One child balances on a small rock and jumps down with a laugh. “Children gain confidence and resiliency in this type of place-based education,” Habeck says. “They can adapt to changing weather and develop creative problem solving skills just from interacting
with nature.”

Building a nature-based school

Habeck founded the school after learning about nature-based early childhood education from her friend Jeannine Palms, who has run her own nature-based home preschool, Blossom Home. Habeck, who previously worked as a teacher in public
and private schools abroad, has studied wilderness first aid and permaculture design. When a house adjacent to Buhr Park and next door to Palms became available, she turned it into a licensed preschool. Each week the two teachers bring their students together to engage in environmental stewardship activities in the park.

Tara Habeck, founder and teacher.

Tara Habeck, founder and teacher.

Many benefits of outdoor classrooms

Ann Arbor’s first forest school is more than a preschool; it’s part of an international movement to create outdoor classrooms where students have opportunities to develop compassion, curiosity and connectedness with nature. More educators are starting to counter the trend of too much indoor “screen time” with nature as
the backdrop for learning. In fact, studies show students who attend these types of schools have increased concentration, creativity, physical stamina, and elevated performance in reading, science, and math.

With every day a new adventure, the students at Ann Arbor Forest School exemplify the benefits of outdoor, play-based education. “Children’s brains develop best in calm environments, and they are soothed by the colors, shapes and smells of the world,” says Habeck. “Playing in nature is therapeutic.”

For more information about the Ann Arbor Forest School visit annarborforestschool.com.