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Colorado's outdoor schools see enrollment bump amid pandemic

Posted at 8:02 AM, Oct 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-14 10:02:18-04

When schools around the country began to reopen in August, Dr. Anthony Fauci recommended keeping kids outside as much as possible. In Colorado, some schools adopted that philosophy long before the pandemic.

The Wild Ones Forest School in Evergreen and WorldMind Nature Immersion School in Denver are two different types of outdoor schools. Both are seeing increased interest from families who don’t want their children packed into small classrooms.

The Wild Ones is a part-time home school enrichment program, emphasizing children’s social and emotional development.

“When you let kids run wild, then they can’t help but learn,” said Cassie Friesen, co-founder of The Wild Ones.

The program emphasizes play and curiosity-driven learning. Since it’s not a full-time school, there’s no set curriculum. Friesen and her partner Erin Vance both received training in the United Kingdom, where the Forest School model was developed. But they incorporate their own passions into their school.

“We do really cool stuff, we do fire making, we have tools we use, but it’s really secondary to the kids’ social emotional groups,” said Vance.

Both Vance and Friesen believe being outside give students more freedom to express themselves and burn off energy, which can help them socially and emotionally.

Miles away, in Denver's City Park, WorldMind Nature Immersion School is a full-time private outdoor school for elementary aged students. The curriculum is more structured, but it’s flexible.

“You never know what opportunity will present itself, so you need to be comfortable as an educator shifting,” said Amy Snodgrass, a teacher at WorldMind.

Founder Megan Patterson said she believes in inquiry-driven learning, but has also incorporated some traditional classroom tools into the outdoor program. For example, the kids have iPads to read e-books and take photos.

“You can do all subjects outside," said Patterson. "We do our reading curriculum out here, math, science, social studies, and just using the community and what’s already here."

The WorldMind curriculum is designed around the four seasons, which begs the question: What happens to an outdoor school when the temperatures start to drop?

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing,” said Erin Vance, expressing the philosophy that guides Forest Schools around the world.

Both WorldMind and The Wild Ones have indoor options if there is lightning or severe weather, but most of the time, they use Colorado’s weather to their advantage.

“They’re building with the snow, we’re doing a lot of snow science, and as long as everyone is adequately dressed, they can be perfectly safe,” said Patterson.

Patterson understands some of the families who came to WorldMind this year may decide to return to a traditional school when the threat of the virus passes. But she hopes more people will see the benefits of encouraging kids to spend less time on screens, and more time out in nature.

“They’re naturally more regulated, they have the opportunity to move, and they’re getting really invested in what they’re learning,” said Patterson.