A classroom without walls: forest school opens on Orcas Island

The Orcas Island Forest School is opening Sept. 14.

by COLLEEN SMITH ARMSTRONG

Editor/Publisher

When the woods are your classroom, the possibilities are endless.

Orcas kids will now have the chance to learn and grow in a nontraditional school setting: the forest.

A group of parents have formed the Orcas Island Forest School for kids ages two and a half to six to participate in play-based, all-weather, outdoor early childhood education.

“Our daughter Alma is going into preschool and there are lots of great options here, but we realized that if we really wanted this for our kids, we’d have to do it ourselves,” said founding member Andrew Youngren.

The initial discussions began in May and by August they had hired two teachers, secured a location and were a registered nonprofit under the umbrella of Island Stewards, a 501(c)3 that helps new organizations that are dedicated to sustainable environmental stewardship. The school will be overseen by eight board members: Emily and Andrew Youngren, Hailey Averna, Heidi Bruce, Serena Burman, Ken Katz,  Sara Lucia and Victoria Shaner.

“The enthusiasm from the very beginning has been inspiring,” said Emily.

There will be a question and answer session about the new school on Wednesday, Aug. 19 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the food co-op upstairs meeting room. All are welcome. Enrollment information can be found at www.orcasislandforestschool.org. Financial aid is available for qualifying families.

The school will open Sept. 14 on the Camp Orkila grounds and run through June. Class is from 8:30 a.m. to noon, Monday through Friday. The teacher-student ratio is 5:1. The day flows based on what the children express an interest in – there aren’t formal lesson plans but the teachers encourage imaginative play and creativity.

The Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island was one of the first Forest Schools to open in the United States. It is based on the German model “Waldkindergarten” which means forest kindergarten. The movement originated in Denmark in the 1950s, with the first kindergarten in Germany opening during the 1960s.  Outdoor early education is currently thriving in Europe and Japan. Proponents say forest schools have an impact on children’s physical coordination, tactile sensitivity and learning ability in school later on.

For the lead teacher position, the Orcas school has hired Ryan Weisberg, who has a B.A. from Evergreen State College, an M.Ed. in Environmental Education from Western Washington University and a certificate in Northwest Natural History and is a Wilderness First Responder. Weisberg has worked for 10 years as a seasonal naturalist for North Cascades Institute and Mount Rainier Institute in Washington, Thorne Nature Experience in Colorado and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Tennessee.

Kimberly Worthington has been hired as the assistant teacher. She received her degree in Environmental Education from Warren Wilson College and recently completed her Forest Kindergarten Teacher Certification from Cedarsong Nature School.

The school organizers say that even though the San Juans offer the perfect playground, modern kids are distracted by their computer screens and busy schedules of extracurricular activities like sports, swimming and dance.

“The Orcas Island Forest School is about emphasizing nature as an educator,” Burman said. “It’s experiential learning versus academic learning.”