Kew Kids Forest School focuses on a nature-based program that encourages young children to embrace the outdoors while developing a multitude of skills.
The children-led curriculum incorporates cognitive development, language development, art, music, creativity, math and special activities into the exploration of Forest Park. Teachers serve as a guide that help the children explore further.
“By being outside, kids still learn language, creativity and math, but we just do it differently using natural materials,” said founder and director Jessica Halsrud.
“There are tons of sensory experiences where kids can learn science by doing things like mixing dirt and water to make mud,” she explained. “They’re learning how to measure and count in a natural environment.”
Kew Kids Forest School is part of a growing nature-based preschool movement within the country. It is a member of networks, including Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools, as well as Natural Start Alliance.
While there are similar “Mommy and Me” classes in Brooklyn, there isn’t another licensed daycare offering a forest program in the city.
“Forest schools are really popular in Europe, it’s the norm where kids can roam around with guides,” Halsrud said, adding that the Department of Parks stated that their trips to Forest Park is permissible without a permit for small groups.
Kew Kids Forest School will be open during all four seasons. The school provides parents with a list of gear the kids require, such as skin protectors for hot and humid weather, or waterproof snow pants, thermal underwear and wool socks for cooler temperatures.
If the weather is too extreme, the group stays in the fully equipped daycare in Halsrud's home at 82-96 116th Street, minutes from Forest Park. She wanted the daycare to be in a homely environment so kids can feel like they’re being dropped off at a friend’s house.
Halsrud has two children of her own. When looking for daycare options, she couldn’t find one that suited the environment she wanted for her kids.
“When I was growing up, I played outside and in the creeks and it just felt like a different world,” Halsrud said. “I’ve conceived this place out of my love for nature and research has shown how important this is developmentally.”
Research shows that spending more time in nature allows children to have better academic performances and behavior, as well as an increase in engagement, attention and wellbeing.
“The kids learn essential life skills like how to share, how to play together, how to win or lose, how to compromise and how to solve problems,” Halsrud said.
The daycare uses Forest Park as the classroom, where children spend the bulk of their time throughout the day. In their special spot in the park, there are swinging vines, logs, a welcome rock and open space.
If a child feels unsure of the open space, the group work on activities like fort-building, which makes the child feel like he or she has a safe haven.
“Over time they come to embrace the environment that they’re in,” Halsrud said.
Lead teacher and program creator Cynthia Ribadeneira utilizes the landscape to encourage exploration, experimentation and development for the children.
Ribadeneira and Halsrud met at a nature teacher’s conference in May. Together, they brought the Kew Kids Forest School to life.
“We do a lot of open play and follow the children’s lead, so one day we built a fort because they believed a fairy lived in the tree, and I probe them with questions, trying to incite them and expand their imagination,” Ribadeneira said.
“Earlier today there was a lot of pretend play, so we pretended we were tigers and we chased each other all around the forest,” she added. “The more they’re out here, the more freedom they feel and the more connected they feel to nature.”
The youngest participants are six-month-old children who do traditional exercises like tummy time, but also get the opportunity to touch and experience natural materials while on a blanket in the park.
Kew Kids Forest School is currently developing an afterschool program for older kids who attend elementary school. Furthermore, whenever school’s out for a period of time, the daycare provides mini-camps.
“It would be great if they’re learning in a traditional classroom and then have a natural component once they get out of school,” Halsrud said. “Let the kids be kids and enjoy childhood.”