Founded in 2018, Athens Forest Kindergarten is a "place-based" cooperative preschool based in Sandy Creek Park. (Courtesy/Caroline Singletary)

Out in the woods of Sandy Creek Park, children ages 3 to 6 run around and explore the beauty of nature. Whether it’s by getting their hands dirty from mud pies or learning about an unfamiliar species, the students of Athens Forest Kindergarten learn emotional and relational skills through nature.

Founded in 2018, Athens Forest Kindergarten is a "place-based" cooperative preschool held in Sandy Creek Park. The aim of the kindergarten program is to connect children to the environment and prioritize their holistic, social-emotional development.

The program operates on three different tiers of tuition. Parents can pay a range of $100-$300 per month depending on the child's involvement. Each tier of tuition requires families to volunteer in the forest for one or two hours per month, a commitment in line with the program's cooperative model.

Sarah Whitaker, the program’s founder and director, views the program as a way for students to “get along with others in the community and figure problems out at a young age.”

With a background in education and nonprofit organizations, Whitaker began the program as a response to the growing conversation about progressive educational models. The program’s teachings are not set around an academic curriculum, but rather ways of problem-solving to benefit the students both socially and emotionally in an unknown environment, Whitaker said.

“Having a community, being allowed to choose what the children do with their time and having the mild challenges that come from being outdoors are the chances that students have to learn,” Whitaker said.

The employees of Athens Forest Kindergarten find significant differences in working in the outdoors versus a traditional classroom.

Amy Zvonar, a teacher with Athens Forest Kindergarten, said a major difference between teaching children in the outdoors and in a traditional classroom setting is “being able to grow an even greater connection to being outside.”

By being out in nature for multiple hours of the day — rain or shine — the faculty members and parents learn experiential information along with the children, such as learning from the children as to grow from experiences in nature, Whitaker said.

“My favorite part is being able to be outside and feel that freedom of being in the forest while never having a predictable day,” Whitaker said. “You have to plan some things out that you’d like to incorporate, but it’s never boring.”

Whitaker notes the availability of research demonstrating the social and behavioral benefits of immersing children in the outdoors and allowing them to experience a natural form of education, but did not cite a specific study. However, research published by AIMS Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal in the field of public health, suggests active outdoor play involving natural or synthetic resources enables children to spark creativity and imagination, develop problem-solving abilities and cultivate independence.

However, parents notice small behavioral changes in their children at home the parents and teachers predict could develop with time.

Mary Lovelace, a parent and volunteer of a 3-year-old in the program, chose a forest-based childcare system for the opportunity to develop outside and interact with children in a kind and nurturing way. Since joining the program, she has noticed the small behavioral changes in her child.

“When we go on family hikes, our son likes to take the lead and teach us new things that he would not have learned in a traditional program,” Lovelace said. “He’s definitely learning about the forest and nature that he would not have picked up before.”

Most parents and faculty in the program have experience with traditional public schools and still find benefits from its structure, but Lovelace noted the separate opportunities from early childhood education in nature is “refreshingly different.”

“It’s been a good fit for our family, but in a completely different way,” Lovelace said.

In the near future, employees and faculty members envision the program reaching a more diverse community and providing its nature-based teaching opportunities to communities in Athens of varying incomes, to make sure everyone gets a chance to experience education in nature, Whitaker said.

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