February 13, 2018

Free Forest schools offer free play in the natural world

Minneapolis Star Tribune - Free Forest School, [was] set in motion on this December morning at Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis.

Dowling is an environmental magnet school, but [Anna] 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.

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.

... 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.

Sharratt said she recruited people to continue the group before her family moved cross-country to Austin, Texas. She helped Free Forest School ignite there, too, before a return to where she grew up: the Twin Cities. At last check, the Austin school had nearly 3,900 members in its Facebook group.

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