One spring day while browsing on social media, someone in one of my mommy-group Facebook pages was talking about a new “school’ in the Indy area—The Free Forest School. They mentioned that it focuses on nature based playing and really, lets the kids take the lead. It piqued my interest, so I found the “school” online and researched the programs they offered. The Free Forest School said that being “child-led” allows the kids to become more confident and connect with nature. Honestly, this “child-led” nature play completely freaked me out. How was my six year old going to lead a class? How was my three year old going to lead a class?? I had A LOT of questions. I found the local chapter’s Facebook page and it was very helpful. There were all kinds of great resources. I was still skeptical. It is for children from birth through age six, how could doing the same thing possibly entertain such a vast difference in age?
Nevertheless, we took the plunge, or maybe it is more accurate to say we “slid” into it. I enlisted a couple friends to come with their kids and, with my six and three year old in tow, we attended our first Free Forest School event. I was not sure I would be comfortable “letting go” in front of strangers. I figured my friends were there as well and they would help calm my fears. It was great having them there with me but I did not need to worry. Every parent or caregiver that was there was very welcoming and kind. They helped calm my nerves and treated me as if I belonged. We were all there for the same reason, to let our kids play and learn in nature.
Our meeting was at Flat Fork Creek Park in Fishers. The meeting started with a meet and greet and a shared snack (we brought Goldfish; others brought watermelon, grapes, cheese sticks, etc.) Rachel, our fearless leader, had a short talk and we went over the rules. Rachel strongly encouraged to parents to unplug and step back. It was hard to unplug but she designated a parent to photograph the kids throughout the day (and then that parent uploads the pictures to the private Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis Facebook page for all the rest of us parents to see). I noticed the photographer really tried to capture all the kids doing something, whether it be climbing, hiking, playing in dirt, or making new discoveries. It is so easy to have your cell phone in hand and ready to go but it is so refreshing to leave it in your backpack and really immerse yourself in your child’s adventure. The kids really do take the lead and it was neat to see that unfold.
We sang a song introducing our children to everyone else and then the group set off down the trail toward basecamp. In my research, I read that since the Free Forest School is child-led, sometimes the kids head in various directions. My six year old had no problem adjusting and playing with other families. She started the hike by climbing the big hill then heading to basecamp with friends while my three year old started down the trail. I followed her and we hiked the wooded trails together. Due to recent rain the trails were very slick. Many of us slid down the steep embankments and ended up covered in mud. I was able to observe my older daughter and her friends further ahead. They were stuck in the mud and my friends had to help pull them out. They laughed the entire time. Most of the kids spent the remainder of the free time in the creek. They found shells and rocks, splashed each other, and had such a great time.
After about an hour of free play Rachel initiated circle time–songs and stories (some families brought lunch, we snacked on more goldfish and water). She read a book that was loosely based on the day’s activities. Stories and silly songs were shared. My six year old shared that she lost a shoe in the creek, two other children lost shoes in the creek as well, nobody was upset or mad, and we just went with the flow. That was a great feeling.
After our circle time was complete, we were free to leave. It seemed many families stayed and played enjoying all that nature has to offer. My family and our friends cut out after circle time.
Plenty of water Snack to share (no peanuts) Picnic lunch / extra snacks (if you plan to stay after circle time)
Blanket or tarp to sit on
Change of clothes (we had extra clothes and towels in the car)
Appropriate clothing and footwear for the site and weather (I suggest old sneakers or strap on sandals like Teva or Keen style and not slip on plastic shoes that will get stuck in the mud and lost in the creek)
Sunblock / bug spray / small first aid kit
Trash bag / plastic bag for wet clothes or garbage
Diapers / wipes if needed
I admit, I found it a challenge to “let go” and let the kids lead the way. As parents, we are so used to guiding, teaching and directing our kiddos, it was hard to “let go”. Since that first visit we have been back and my three year old adjusted very quickly. I was surprised that she was so brave and jumped right into the creek. She finger painted with mud and even held a toad! I think seeing her more relaxed and open to trying new things helped put me at ease. It was definitely easier to stand back and watch her lead the way the second time around.
The girls and I are excited to hit the trails and inevitably the creek again. I’m curious to see what it’s like in the cool fall months and even in the snow!
The Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis meets daily throughout the year at nearby wilderness areas.
We look forward to seeing you soon!