Bundled up for a day in the snow, preschool students and their parents spread tarps and blankets over a frozen creek last week for a class featuring lessons often taught in a public library.
But instead of sitting on carpet under florescent lights for storytime, the families gathered with the forest as the backdrop to hear Katherine Dudley read a picture book called “One Snowy Day,” focused on numbers. While listening to the tale unfold, the group took a break to count together.
“I don’t know if any of you older kids can count backwards? Shall we try it? Ten, nine, eight,” said Dudley, director of Free Forest School of Durango, who was joined by a chorus of voices. After storytime, the students gathered rosehips for tea near Junction Creek and practiced counting those as well.
Once the tea was hot, Ayla Nesbitt, 3, sat on the snow sipping it and licking her lips, satisfied.
“It tastes like snow,” she said.
Since 2017, families with young children have been gathering in similar settings near Durango for the Free Forest School intended to help children make friends, explore the outdoors and learn in a hands-on environment, Dudley said. The groups meet in the same place each week to give students and parents the chance to see the forest change with the seasons and gain a sense of ownership over it, she said.
Each meeting features stories, activities and unstructured playtime, she said. During the unstructured time, kids take on creative projects that require problem-solving, such as building a bridge over Junction Creek, she said.
“They become really great problem-solvers, as they have to adjust to the environment,” she said.
The classes have proved popular, drawing about 500 students since 2017, and Dudley expects the program to continue growing, she said. The school currently has five groups. Three of the groups meet at Junction Creek, one meets in Forest Lakes and one meets in Bayfield along the Pine River.
This summer she is expecting more groups to form, including a group for parents who are homeschooling, Dudley said.
Free Forest School of Durango is a local chapter of a nonprofit started in 2015. Chapters of the group have started across the U.S. and internationally to encourage play and learning outdoors.
“It just has kind of spread like wildfire,” Dudley said.
For, Anna Nesbitt, Ayla’s mom, the classes make complete sense because they provide real-life context lessons about color, shape and quantity appropriate for young students.
In a classroom, students learn about colors on paper; but in the forest school, they learn colors from the environment, she said.
“The trees, they are green and now they are brown. ... It’s a lot more practical and real-life,” she said.
Parents also said they enjoy the classes, in part because they provide motivation to get outside no matter the weather.
“Some of the best days out here are some of the worst weather days,” said Sarah Levine, who brings her three daughters ages 18 months, 3 and 5 to the class.
After several hours in the forest, all of her children seem more calm for the rest of the day, she said.