Natural Learning Pt 2: Katy Bowman Shares Her Family's Outdoor School Experiences
In our previous "Natural Learning" post, we explored the rise of outdoor schools, or "forest kindergartens," across America (and their origins abroad). Even after all that research, we still had some questions about what it's really like to opt into this alternative learning setting. We asked Soft Star's good friend and natural living inspiration, Katy Bowman, to discuss her family's first-hand experiences with outdoor learning. Katy has two young children, ages 4 and 5.5 at this writing, enrolled in a nature school near her family's Washington home, and she was kind enough to reflect on the path that led them to outdoor education.
When did you enroll your son and daughter in nature school?
Both started at age 3; they have attended outdoor school for their entire "formal" education to this point.
You’ve spoken before about Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and how the author's research supports the concept of learning from nature. When did you encounter Louv's work, and was it an important factor in your decision to enroll your children in outdoor school?
I found Richard’s book after my kids had already begun to attend nature school, but Last Child was an important motivator for the founder of their school to start the program they now attend.
Did you have any concerns about choosing nature school over conventional school? If so, what were they?
Nope ;) It felt like the right fit and a natural choice for my family's active lifestyle.
What ultimately led you to choose outdoor school over the alternatives?
I don’t see us moving forward as a species without a much deeper understanding of how to flourish within nature (as humans have always done). Initially, I was drawn to the physical benefits of outdoor learning conditions: more movement, exposure to the elements, healthy eyeballs, and it has definitely provided those things. But since they’ve started attending, I’ve also watched them develop a sense of comfort moving through the world — a physical capableness plus a lack of fear — that I believe will be a huge asset to them for their entire lives. Of all the lessons they are learning, I am most in awe of this comfort, of how "at home" our children feel in nature.
How do your children feel about outdoor school? Is it ever a struggle to get them to go?
We were watching a movie that featured a scene filmed in a traditional classroom, with all the kids sitting at desks while the teacher dispensed information at the front of the room. “Is that indoor school?” asked my 5 year old, and when I said yes, he said (in kid terms) that he was very glad to have more freedom.
What do you believe your children enjoy the most about their school days?
Many of the same things children enjoy about indoor school days (other kids, new ideas, discussions), but also elements specific to nature-school, like direct observation of natural phenomena that’s typically taught from books. It’s one thing to be told that the ears of an owl are asymmetrical. It’s another thing to get to stumble upon an owl looking down at you, and have the luxury to watch it for some time to observe how it adjusts its head to be able to listen to you. And it’s a WHOLE other thing to find an owl carcass and examine the shape of its ear holes close up, in real life. Their favorite things to report are those little unplanned moments that revealed a mystery of the natural world, tidbits of knowledge gathered directly through observation.
The lessons at outdoors schools are usually driven by children’s interests and questions. Are these usually abundant, or do teachers often have to step in and jump-start the learning?
I think that there’s often confusion between child-driven learning and a lack of facilitation. Nature school isn’t a place to drop your kids off and let them do what they want in the woods, nor is nature school a place where teachers have ten nature lessons they’re going to teach today. It’s somewhere in the middle. The educators do have plans for the day...they just feel more like “choose your own adventures!”
Nature school is a situation where there are things happening all around the children and their instructors, where both the teachers and the kids are working with their environment to see where the lessons reveal themselves. It’s sort of like making a fire. Kids are like coals: they ignite due to something instinctive, some question sparked by something they alone might have experienced. The teachers are key in that they are constantly observing both the environment and the children to find opportunities to kindle that inherent interest into a flame.
What have your children taught YOU from their nature school experiences?
We’ve learned to identify new wild edibles, as well as LOTS of details about animal behaviors from our kids.
You talk about our cultural assumptions that you can be outside too much; have you ever been criticized by other parents for placing your children in a position where they are constantly so “exposed” to the elements?
I feel many people are scared about elements of the natural world because they’ve been trained to be. It’s sort of like footwear. People have been conditioning to think they need support, and that the support they require (not prefer, but require) comes in a stiff shoe. Yes our feet, and our entire body, need support, but the support we require is intrinsic. We acquire it not by adopting cushioned walking casts, but by conditioning our bodies to the rest of the natural world. The biggest criticisms I've received are random comments from strangers, and are always related to our often-unshod family.
In fact, you've previously mentioned that children attending outdoor school often seem to enjoy better sleep and fewer instances of sickness than their conventionally schooled peers. Has this been the case with your own kids?
Yes; going into our third year we’ve found that this seems to hold true.
In recent articles discussing the uptick in ADD and ADHD diagnoses in children, child development experts have noted that by forcing kids to remain still all in traditional settings, schools actually prevent children from developing the core strength and physical strength to sit up and pay attention for any length of time. I found this really interesting. I know your family makes daily movement a priority, but do you feel that your children are able to focus better than others their age who don’t attend nature school?
I think the ability to focus is brought about by so many things—movement, diet, and how relaxed (i.e. unstressed) a human being is. I'm not sure how my kids' attention compares to other children's.
How do you plan to transition your kids into the regular public school system?
We have no plans to place them in conventional schooling. It will be a family decision when it’s time, but we foresee doing a hybrid of passion-based learning, advanced nature-first education as a family, and home school supplementation. We’re envisioning doing this with other local families, co-op style.
I read that your children’s school is starting an adult program? Do you plan to attend?
Our nature education program offers wild plant classes and family experiences that we regularly partake in, and we use our vacation time to take family bushcraft classes as well! We are so fortunate to have these opportunities to strengthen our bodies, our minds, and our family tribe :)
We are SUPER grateful to Katy for patiently answering our questions! You can learn more about her family's outdoor learning experiences by listening to "Nature School" and episode of her podcast, Katy Says by Katy Bowman, or read her blog article "Come to Outdoor School for Five Minutes.