Seattle's Child

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Outdoor play group: Free Forest School offers kids nature-based learning

A local outdoor play group meets at Carkeek Park on Tuesday mornings. (Photos by Free Forest School)

Free Forest School: Play-based outdoor meetups for families

Explore, experiment, and play outdoors

Nature-based play is rapidly gaining popularity especially with an increased awareness of the benefits of outdoor play, as well as a pandemic that forced us all to get outside more.

You may be interested in getting your kids to experience more nature-based play, but you also may feel intimidated by your kids getting dirty in the rain; aren’t sure how to best engage with your kids in nature; don’t want to invest in elaborate outdoor gear; or don’t have an interest or capacity to sign up for an outdoor-based preschool.

Then look no further than Free Forest School, a community where you’ll connect with other caregivers and kids at free, volunteer-led, nature-based outdoor play groups. No experience, equipment or commitment is needed. Bring only an interest in exploring nature with other folks in your community.

The idea is simple: a volunteer starts hosting regularly scheduled meet-ups at a local park on a specific day and time. Caregivers and kids are welcome to come and join in for unstructured, nature-based play. There’s no commitment and no fee — just an opportunity to spend time together in nature. Although signing up in advance isn’t required, joining Free Forest School’s online hub, Our Outdoors, offers a variety of benefits, such as RSVPing to events (and getting updates or changes to the event), learning about other local events, and tips and resources for engaging in outdoor play.

How the program got started

Started in 2015 with the first chapter in New York, the Free Forest School grew to more than 115 chapters by 2019. Participating with this nonprofit organization is free, though many participants choose to donate to support the work of promoting and expanding outdoor play through Free Forest School.

Elizabeth Corinth, a Free Forest School Board Member and host in Washington D.C., notes that, “Our focus is really on empowering and connecting caregivers, supporting them in developing skills and forming communities to expand access to nature play opportunities for their kids and other kids in their area. Rather than being a formal school or program, we are a network and a resource for families around the country who want to get their kids playing outside.”

Free Forest School is the perfect opportunity for anyone to check out nature-based play.

outdoor play groups: Kids use natural materials for imaginative play

Kids use natural materials for imaginative play

Benefits of nature play

To say that the benefits of nature play are plentiful is quite an understatement.

Clarice Amorim Freitas, executive director of Free Forest School, says that nature play “fosters curiosity, strengthens physical and communication skills, improves mental health, offers opportunities for problem-solving and risk-taking, encourages cooperation … the benefits are almost endless.”

Corinth notes that “the outdoors provides a rich environment with a diverse range of challenges, open-ended materials like sticks and rocks, and the opportunity to observe complex phenomena such as cause and effect, seasonal change, and ecosystems of interconnected organisms.”

And if you think that you need to drive to the mountains or the ocean or some other epic outdoor space for nature-play, think again: Corinth reminds us that nature-play can happen anywhere – your backyard, on a walk down the street, or at your local park. Any outside place is a place for outdoor exploration.

Outdoor play group: ending circle

The Free Forest School model features an ending circle, a time to read books and sing songs together.

Outdoor play groups around Seattle

One local group meets at Carkeek Park on Tuesday mornings with volunteer leader Allison Griffith. Families gather at a shelter space, then a “base camp” in the forest, and then the kids play. They roam, explore and experiment. After an hour or so, Griffith facilitates a closing circle time with a story and song.

Play time: What it’s all about

And what happens during the unstructured play time? Griffith says, “I’ve seen exploration, building, imaginative play, number/sorting, art, and cooperative play. Basically everything you have to work hard to foster in a more structured setting emerges naturally if you just let kids hang out in nature together.”

That’s the key: There’s no formal agenda or planned events. The kids explore their environment and follow their own interests and observations. Caregivers provide safety and guidance as needed, but kids direct their time in nature.

Griffith observes that, “It’s really one of the highest return-on-investment activities I do with my kids. It’s free (obviously), takes basically no prep, and is a consistent activity we can do each week. No matter how grumpy we are as we leave the house, we always feel better after we’ve gotten some time to play in the dirt and look for bugs.”

My experience

When I went to the Free Forest School meetups with my toddlers, they’ve had plenty of time to explore and imagine. My kids built pretend campfires, imagined that they were in a repair shop fixing camper vans, and more. We all observed a squirrel methodically drop things out of a tree near our play space too. They loved circle time with songs and stories at the end. Me? Well, I got to observe my kids explore and experiment in the forest, while connecting with other caregivers.

Free Forest School is a win for kids and caregivers alike. Head on over to Carkeek on Tuesday mornings and get your kids exploring with Free Forest School. Or start your own meet-up at your local green space and create community around outdoor play.


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About the Author

Ellie White

Ellie had the privilege of growing up in our beautiful Pacific Northwest. She currently lives in the Green Lake neighborhood with her husband and twin toddlers.