School’s in session, everyone outside
February 11-17, 2019
By Jay Edwards
The American naturalist and author, Doug Peacock, once said, “Saving the wild is the mother of all things. That’s where we gathered our intelligence. I think it is essential for life, for growth, for wisdom.”
It’s easy to see hope for that “wild” Peacock devoted his life to preserving, when one visits the Ferncliff Nature Preschool, located at Ferncliff on the edge of west Little Rock.
I arrived on a cold and grey January morning, in search of the state’s most unique classroom. There were a few cars scattered about but no sign of life, as the 1200-acre camp pretty well shuts down in the winter months. My instructions were to take the bridge over the creek and in another 100 yards or so I’d come to an area next to the Robert M. Ramsey Memorial Chapel.
I spotted the group and after parking, walked toward them. I was greeted by Rachel Parker, the school’s director and one of the teachers, of which there are four. “We have 24 children in the all-day class,” Rachel told me, “which is a ratio of six students to one teacher. We have another six kiddos who come for half a day, with another teacher just for them.”
I watched activity taking place all around me. On the other side of a creek the ground rose steeply. I could see a couple of kiddo-made forts on the slope, with large branches pitched and stacked for what looked to be a fairly solid roof. “We give them boundaries out here, but they are pretty wide, and they know what they are,” Rachel said.
About that time a little boy named Addison came over and showed me a couple of sticks that he’d been working on. They had pointed ends, evidence from the whittling he’d done with one of the potato peelers the kids are supplied for that task.
Off to the right I saw another group of children and one of the teachers sitting around a campfire. “The campfire is the first thing we get going each morning,” Rachel told me.
Down in the creek, two boys were very busy with something and one of them called me to come see. There wasn’t any shyness evident among the group. It was instead a confidence you’d expect to find in a group of explorers headed to unknown lands. The boys in the creek explained they were breaking rocks so they could see what they looked like inside. They had learned which rocks were harder and were using those to smash down on the smaller softer ones. They missed a few times, splashing water on themselves from the creek, one of the obvious perks of their task.
The Ferncliff Nature Preschool opened in 2016. So far, it is the only one in the state and is patterned after the “Forest-Kind Model,” which was originally developed in the Scandinavian countries in the 1950s. Although still a novelty in North America, they have gained popularity in Europe. Germany alone has over 1,500 so called wild kindergartens, or forest kindergartens.
“They discover something new every day,” Rachel says. “They are building forts, dens, bridges. And they are learning social skills, how to get along and resolve their conflicts.
“The artist in them comes out as well,” she said, “using their imaginations to make things from what the earth gives them. They string leaves to make necklaces and learn to use hand saws and hand drills for woodworking. They are creating.”
I looked down on the ground near where we were standing and saw the class did use books as well, with titles like “Field Guide for Insects.” There were also guides for Trees, Geology, Animal Tracks, Scats and Signs and Bugs and Slugs.
“They love being outside,” Rachel says, “and when children are happy they want to learn more.”
I walked over near the fire and the group who were circled around it. A couple of them were whittling. Andrea Lewis was one of the teachers with this group. She explained to me about the “Blood Circle,” which is the imaginary area that surrounds a whittler, and how you need to stay beyond the reach of their knife to be safe, or in this case, their potato peeler.
It was nearing midmorning snack time and the ritual began that brought the children together for some food and warm cider. On some days they make oatmeal, Rachel told me. I found Addison again near the maze. He seemed a little concerned and I asked him what was up. He showed me a little scratch he’d gotten and indicated another little boy over in the maze had something to do with it. “Is he your friend,” I asked. “Sometimes,” Addison told me. “Today he is.”
Conflict apparently resolved.
Joe Gill, executive director of Ferncliff Camp is excited about the school. “They are going to be the ones who take care of the earth,” he says, “so it is important to instill that in them from the very beginning. Rachel and her team do an incredible job.”
As the kiddos and teachers circled up for their snack time, I was invited by a little girl named Mary to come and sit by her, which, pretty much made my day. It had only taken about an hour to convince me how important a school like this is, and hopefully we will see more like it.
“I love this job and the fact I get to be outdoors every day,” Rachel says. “And I love I get to see what they find and how curious they are…and the light and wonder in their eyes.”
To learn more about the school, visit online at ferncliff.org/nature-school/nature-preschool/
Opened in 2016, Ferncliff Nature Preschool is the first and only of its kind in the state. In Little Rock’s Nature Preschool, the students spend their time outdoors and learn from their environment. “They discover something new every day [...] They are building forts, dens, bridges. And they are learning social skills, how to get along and resolve their conflicts.” (Photos courtesy of Little Rock Nature Preschool)