Using Nature to Nurture: Alaska Forest Schools Move the Classroom Outdoors

Categories: Education

Studies show time and time again that exposing children to the outdoors and play maked them better learners. This school in Alaska is taking this information at heart and doing great things.

One by one, Lia Keller’s students hopped down from their parents’ minivans or SUVs and scooted across the parking lot of North Bivouac Trailhead off Campbell Airstrip Road. Clad in snowsuits, boots and mittens, the kids, ranging in age from almost 3 to 6, drew pictures on the ground with sticks, caught snowflakes on tongues and chattered to each other about the weather, dogs and the quality of snacks in their pint-sized backpacks. 

Keller, founder of The Alaska Forest School and its chief administrator, instructor and trailside cheerleader, gathered her charges in a huddle and asked for some guidance on finding a landmark from the previous week.

“Do you think you could find the tunnel from last time?” she asked the group, kneeling to preschooler level. “Which way do you think we should go?” 

Leading the way, kids ran from the trail in an impressive show of directional capability, over fallen logs and snowy underbrush to a downed cottonwood. Pushed from its earthly anchor some time before, the tree’s root ball and some surrounding soil remained attached, creating the perfect den for a pack of preschoolers heck-bent on playing “foxes and bears” in the resulting pit. 

Parents, some toting smaller siblings, lingered on the fringes, helping when asked but not interfering as Keller queried the kids about flora, fauna and situational awareness of their location. Welcome to one of the most unique classrooms in Alaska.

The concept 

As much about place as play, the forest school movement represents a growing method of educating children outside the boundaries of traditional classrooms, an ethos Keller says is important for growing minds and bodies. 

“I am passionate about getting children outside,” she said as we walked a narrow trail. “Kids have to get out as young as possible so they learn how to explore and foster a deep love of nature and our wild places. 

“Not only that, I feel children need more unstructured time. So many kids are on sports teams or in a gym program, but they have little time to direct their own play and learn from those experiences.” 

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