Undeterred by a blaze of mid-morning heat, a handful of preschoolers stampede down an overgrown slope, tall blades of wildgrasses swallowing their legs as they sprint farther into the distance. On the hazy horizon, Denver emerges as a speck — a world away from the tree-rimmed trails and shadowy alcoves that are regular classrooms to the young students.
Their school stretches across 100 acres on Lookout Mountain in Golden, with different pockets of the land serving different purposes, including “Hippo Rock,” where students climb the rocks and nearby trees, and the “deep dark forest,” where kids run around and occasionally examine animal bones they find. Every stump, downed tree and thicket is a chance for students to point their imaginations in a new direction. Some kids crowd on and around a fallen tree trunk, which could just as easily be a pirate ship.
“We’re sinking!” one child, Cooper, yells to his classmates one late-summer day. “There’s three holes in the boat.”
The students attend Colorado Nature School, learning outdoors year round in an expanse that other kids might only get to visit during a weekend hike or school field trip. Their school is part of a growing movement of forest schools across Colorado, where students weather all kinds of weather to learn outdoors about how to manage their emotions, communicate their needs, navigate conflict and practice resilience when temperatures dip into the teens.
Nature, after all, is a powerful teacher and one of the places where children can learn how to also become their own teacher.
“They’re trying to make sense of the world around them, so they’re naturally curious,” said Brett Dabb, owner and lead guide of the Colorado Nature School. “So they’re already asking a bunch of questions, which is great. And so it’s just kind of supporting and nurturing that curiosity and watching it grow.”
Parents also come with plenty of their own questions: How will my child stay warm? What happens during snowstorms, thunderstorms and downpours?
The Colorado Nature School quells their worries by stocking up on hand and foot warmers and by telling families to be prepared for fast-changing weather, including by having an extra bag of clothes on hand with warm and waterproof layers.
Another outdoor-minded school, Worldmind Education in Denver, has access to the indoors at the Denver Museum Nature of Science, the Washington Park United Methodist Church and the downtown Milheim House, which the school owns. But staff keep students outside most of the time in local parks, immersing them in the urban outdoors.
The nonprofit independent school specializes in teaching kids who are neurodivergent, including students with learning disabilities and those recovering from trauma, and students who are gifted.
A new chance for kids that other schools label defiant
An outdoor school gives kids a wide-open space to release their energy so that they can better concentrate when it’s time to sit down and do work, said Megan Patterson, founder and executive director of Worldmind Education.
“Especially with the gifted and highly gifted brain, it can be really hard when you’re processing so much information at all times,” said Patterson, who completed forest school training in the United Kingdom. “And I think being outside just really helps calm that.”
Patterson launched the outdoor school in 2015 as an outdoor-based child and caregiver enrichment program. In 2018, she started a pilot program with the state in Denver’s City Park, where families would drop their kids ages 3-6 off for school all day.
By 2020, she added on an elementary school with parents of enrolled preschoolers and kindergarteners asking for more grades. The school has since expanded to include a middle school and ninth grade and is looking at the possibility of introducing a hybrid high school that would offer social-emotional support and academic work online or by partnering with other schools. It also has rolled out a second program location for children ages 3-6 at Denver’s Washington Park.
Worldmind educates about 40 preschoolers and about 35 students in elementary and middle school, Patterson said. Teachers rev up an academic component, including reading, writing and math once kids start elementary school while continuing to help them overcome conflict.
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“With our neurodiverse population, a lot of times they are labeled defiant or disrespectful when that’s not it,” she said. “They just have a very clear way that they want something done, and a lot of times schools don’t have the time to really sit down and understand why they’re not wanting to do this task or why this task might be hard for them.”
Eric Binkley, a guide at Worldmind Education, takes that time to listen to his students and patiently ease them from activity to activity. His patience holds, even when he’s standing in a park fountain soaked and trying to corral kids as they burn off energy by splashing each other.
Reinforcing a sense of trust and safety for students is Binkley’s most important job, particularly as past traumatic experiences sometimes surface for kids during class. Academic growth, he said, is also a priority but ranks much lower.
“Way before that can even begin,” Binkley said, “they have to be emotionally, physically, psychologically calm and safe.”
The state does not license outdoor schools — but that could change next year
Forest schools trace their roots back to Scandinavia and have become more popular in other parts of Europe, especially the United Kingdom, with an emphasis on play-based learning and exploration along with calculated risk-taking.
Colorado does not have a license for outdoor nature-based preschools, but the Office of Program Delivery under The Colorado Department of Early Childhood has been working during the past year to create a license for such programs, department spokesperson Ian McKenzie said. The department’s Division of Early Learning Licensing and Administration expects to introduce rules for a hybrid option for outdoor nature-based preschools next year, McKenzie wrote in an email. That would allow programs to operate mostly outdoors so long as they have a nearby building to keep kids and staff safe during inclement weather or bad air quality.
Outdoor schools pose specific challenges to state licensing, particularly with safety as programs, in many cases, don’t have direct authority over the land where they’re educating kids, McKenzie wrote. At the same time, potential wildlife encounters, weather and access to emergency and alternate shelters, air quality conditions and training for outdoor staff create extra considerations in developing a license.
Colorado has learned from Washington — the only state with an outdoor nature-based preschool license, McKenzie wrote.
He also pointed out that licensed programs can include an outdoor component if they have a licensed indoor space with access to toilets and sinks where kids and teachers can go during bad weather or to shelter in place during emergencies. Programs that want to offer schooling exclusively outdoors can also apply for a waiver from the department, and programs that have four or fewer children can be exempt from licensing.
Dabb, from the Colorado Nature School, opened his forest school in August 2020 as many people flocked outdoors during the early months of COVID-19, leasing the outdoor learning space from Jefferson County after securing a permit. He previously ran a forest school in Denver and in many ways has recreated his own childhood for the students, giving them the same boundless sense of wonder that he remembers pulling him back outside as a kid.
About 30 children, both in preschool and kindergarten — including Dabb’s son, Cooper — attend the Colorado Nature School, with groups of four students per teacher coming on staggered days for six-hour stretches.
There are moments of academic learning that students bump into each day: They ease into literacy by identifying letters on signs along the trails. They become acquainted with math skills by counting pine cones, elk in a herd having breakfast or the number of tent caterpillars that are nesting on a plant. They start to understand science, studying the plants and trees that surround them.
But most of their school days revolve around trying to grasp something that is somehow both simple and complex: Getting to know who they are.
It’s not just for the pre-K set
That, in part, starts with exploring their interests and their curiosity, said Dabb, who discovered the potential that nature has as a classroom setting while training educators in a South African village through the Peace Corps.
“We’re not the purveyors of all knowledge that we’re imparting on them,” said Dabb, who has also worked as a preschool teacher and director. “If they’re leading their own experience and following their own interests, they’re in front. We are there to support and nurture and guide.”
That’s why Dabb calls his school’s handful of teachers “guides.”
Among them is Rikki Heyman, 28, who began teaching at the Colorado Nature School in May. Heyman repeatedly nudges her students to tap into their own sense of determination or ask a classmate for help when trying to solve a problem, whether they can’t zip up their jacket or open their lunchbox. It’s a way to move them past what she calls “learned helplessness” that she’s observed in other students during her previous six years of teaching.
“I think that instills that sense of community,” Heyman said. “I don’t have to do it by myself. I can ask someone close to me, and then they’re all responsible for helping themselves and helping each other.”
It’s the kind of approach that Cassie Nyx and Erin Pyne take at their own forest school in nearby Evergreen, where up to a dozen kids in each class roam across almost 19 acres in a mixed conifer forest at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. The Wild One Forest School caters primarily to homeschooled children ages 7 to 13, who typically attend one day a week for five hours.
The off-the-beaten-path program has become a harbor for queer students in particular. Nyx and Pyne, who are also both queer and learned how to run a forest school in the United Kingdom, start each day with a check-in about pronouns and names and play games that encourage kids to be respectful of pronouns and names.
“Every activity that we do, every experience we have is centered around, how is this promoting a connection to ourselves, to each other and to the natural world around us?” Nyx said. “And that really guides everything that we do.”
The students spend part of their morning gathered in a circle, dancing together, playing group games and voicing their own specific goals for the day. Sometimes they write stories to act out together and draw fake tattoos on their teachers and each other. They also take time to observe tiny details of the forest up close, detecting trees infested by beetles and mapping out a plan to save other trees from disease.
And they learn how to navigate challenges far beyond the forest.
“Without fail, if there’s something going on in these kids’ lives, we see it played out in forest school,” said Pyne, who uses they/them pronouns. “And so it’s been really interesting and magical to be able to see those links and how kids process the difficult things that are going on in their lives.”
Dabb, who also completed formal forest school training in the United Kingdom in 2018, envisions continuing to grow forest schools statewide, with kids also showing up to class by plains, plateaus and rivers where they, too, can learn to respect nature and take care of both it and themselves, especially in icy temperatures.
“Those are really the days where we learn the most about ourselves,” Dabb said. “They love it, but it’s also really hard and you push through really hard adversity and you come out the other end a stronger, better person knowing that you can do it again next time.”