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Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.
With the upcoming school year getting closer, and the uncertainty of COVID remaining, parents are being forced to grapple with being full-time parents, educators, and caregivers, while trying to manage their own jobs. An increasingly popular option has been microschools, a hybrid of 19th century schoolhouses, private schools, and in-home schools.
There are a number of different types of microschools, and one that we’ve seen exploding in popularity over the last few years are forest schools. We define forest schools as “a type of early childhood education that takes place in forests, woodlands, or parks. Also known as a forest kindergarten, outdoor nursery, forest nursery, nature kindergarten, or nature preschool. The curriculum is fluid, focusing on learner-led outdoor play that encourages curiosity and exploration.”
Forest schools have a lot of potential as a viable option for parents looking to give their children a quality education that focuses on outdoor time.
We spoke with two new Wonderschool Directors, Abbey Edwards and Monica Brignac, about their experience on starting a forest school amidst COVID-19, and why it’s more important than ever that parents explore outdoor options for their children.
Edwards and Brignac met 3 years ago, after Edwards had her youngest son and was looking to meet new friends in their Murrieta, CA community. As they got to know each other, they realized they had similar philosophies on how children should learn, particularly in their early years. Brignac, who has a background in the fitness industry believes that children should have access to a lot of outdoor activities in order to stay mentally, physically, and emotionally strong. They met at a fitness class called “Giddy Up Mama,” so it was no surprise that the two shared these values.
With school starting in just a few weeks, the two of them began to discuss what an outdoor-based school could look like and if it was something that would be needed by the community. The two began to brainstorm, and naturally, IronKidz began to form.
While they started to form the plans for what IronKidz would be, interest in the program skyrocketed. Edwards, who is a member of a number of mom-fitness groups online, began to put feelers out. Immediately, she saw responses from parents looking for a program just like the one she was creating. Parents were extremely willing to open up about the complexities of keeping their kids at home for the previous school year, and the dread of having to do it again.
Edwards was initially gauging interest to see if this was something parents would want, and immediately, parents turned to Edwards asking her to open a program. Edwards, who is a teacher in a traditional school, decided to open the program with Brignac.
On top of the online mom-fitness groups, word began to spread in the community. During this time, the two were constantly asking for feedback from parents in regards to what they want for their children. Parents primarily want:
Brignac made sure to add that “All parents are a fit! We’ll take easy parents or parents who are a pain in the butt!” She did add, however, the one true requirement is that parents be outside the box thinkers. Forest schools are an outside the box concept, after all. If parents are open to trying something new, then their children will thrive in the program.
To see if the program would actually work, Edwards and Brignac decided to have a demo day, where they’d run a sample of the program and gather feedback from students and parents. They had a number of volunteers come help out, including early childhood education students from a local university and high school students looking for community service credit.
Before the demo day even launched, they had 24 students on the waiting list. This was a major achievement for the duo. Here, you can watch a video of the demo day. By the end of the day, parents, students, and volunteers were asking, “when is the next one!?”
Children need outdoor time. It’s crucial for their physical health, their emotional wellbeing, and to foster a deeper gratitude for the earth. It also offers a safe-space during COVID19, as it’s much easier to remain 6 feet apart out in the fresh air. The school is currently held in a local park that gives plenty of space for play, exercise, and structured learning.
Since COVID19 forced schools into distant learning, there’s been a multitude of complaints and limitations. Edwards is adamant that children’s education extends beyond just the computer. She’s seen first hand the toll distance learning has taken on her 4th grade son who has openly admitted how much he misses his friends, having activities to do, and general structure in his day.
Edwards and Brignac have done their research and have taken the necessary safety protocols in order to operate during a pandemic. They understand the importance of wearing masks and sanitizing spaces. All children are required to wear masks and will have their temperatures taken every day. Cones are placed 6 feet apart on the grass for the students to maintain safe social distance. The park where they teach is vast, providing ample room for students to run, explore, and have structured exercise time.
Edwards stumbled upon Wonderschool when she was initially planning out the early stages of IronKidz. Knowing how quickly they’d need to get the school up and running to meet demand, neither Edwards nor Brignac wanted to waste energy reinventing the wheel. They wanted to be in the trenches, helping parents and students. That’s what Wonderschool has allowed them to do.
Edwards set up a meeting with a team member from Wonderschool who was readily available to help them get their program up and running. The pair noted how easy Wonderschool made the process for both them and enrolling parents. Brignac likened it to “boom, boom, boom, enroll, done!”
Wonderschool will be there along the way as Edwards and Brignac continue to develop and grow their school.
Considering IronKidz is less than a month old, Edwards and Brignac have made massive headway on the program. In less than a week, they’ve enrolled 4 students already, which is a significant number of students in such a short period of time.
Edwards and Brignac have been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and they have big goals for the future of the program. They’re thrilled to be living out their passions of working with kids in a fitness-oriented environment that they foster.
Their program is currently available 4-6pm, Monday through Thursday, but they are rapidly approaching the decision to do this full time. They have broken the program into Kindergarten through 3rd grade, and 4th grade through 8th grade on different days of the week for the summer session. As the program grows, the two are considering moving the program into a space that can accommodate a full-time school.
At Wonderschool, we believe that equality starts with quality early childhood education, regardless of whether you’re raising your children in the heart of a major city or the tiniest town of North Texas.
Wonderschool is designed to make operating a microschool simple and attainable. From organizing tours to managing payroll; from ACH payments from parents to marketing your program, we’re huge believers in microschools and are here to support in any way we can.
If you’re a teacher who lost their job due to COVID-19, or a parent who has been surrounded by children their entire lives and want to monetize your experience, click here to learn more about starting your own microschool and be sure to join our community to ask other like-minded individuals how they’re navigating the ever-changing world of early education.