Initiative taps into ever-growing interest to connect children (and their parents) to nature

Bob Timmons, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Outdoors

MINNEAPOLIS -- Charged with excitement, several of the first-graders got on all fours and smashed through the new snow. Others several yards away draped over a bowed tree, their classmates getting low-low-lower to pass underneath. And nearby several more kids grabbed sticks and held court on their sacred ground. Their twiggy lean-to was only limited by their imaginations.

What was happening was more than kids running wild -- it was kids, by design, doing nothing. Unprescribed play in nature. They were free to get snowy, free to hang on trees, free to turn their discoveries on the earth's floor into whatever, all with the few adults present purposefully hands-off.

Anna Sharratt was one of them, dressed for the weather in a warm sweater, buff and sturdy overalls. And these kids were participants in the quest she is leading, Free Forest School, set in motion on this December morning at Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis.

Dowling is an environmental magnet school, but Sharratt's idea of free play in the natural world -- kids leading the play -- is new terrain in Bejay Johnson's class of city kids. Sure, they get regular recess, but this test run in a school setting was different. Messy is OK.

"Nice job keeping your stick on the ground," Sharratt called out to one boy, while others swung theirs in the air at things only they could see.

Johnson said her students look forward to Sharratt's weekly visit ("a different kind of play"), and what it means: 60 minutes in the school's little slice of woodland, the Nature Acre. What's more, the free time has changed them, she said. They sense that they're in charge, and they are engaged, more confident, and more curious.

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"I see many of the students trying new things and making new discoveries," the teacher said.

Sharratt's idea of play is something she says today's children need and don't get enough of. Her dream is to see a forest kindergarten footprint in schools, but it's play groups made up of parents (or caregivers) and their young children that are the backbone of her grass-roots movement. Social media has been the catalyst, where the desire for reconnecting with nature in our modern world has found an echo among families.

Free Forest School is white-hot across North America, with the Twin Cities one of its newer anchor points. There currently are more than a dozen play groups that make up Free Forest School-Twin Cities, mushrooming out from a network of 60 other Free Forest School locations across North America. Sharratt said that worldwide, there were 34 requests to start new locations since the beginning of the year, some from Australia, Turkey and Singapore.

Before it had a name and a board of directors, Free Forest School was embodied in ideas Sharratt had as a parent to her children, Miles and Ellen (now 6 and 4). While living in Brooklyn in 2015, she said she discovered a small nature play group in Queens that inspired her to try her own version. One night she started a Facebook page called Free Forest School. By the morning, she said, it had attracted 100 members.


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