Our Story
An interview with the founder of Free Forest School, Anna Sharratt

What inspired you to start FFS?

While living in Austin, Texas, my family was fortunate to become a part of a community of families that chose to spend their free time outdoors together. As avid rock climbers, our goal was to get out into nature to climb whenever possible. As a result, our children spent their earliest days playing in sandy caves, among scrub oaks, and alongside the creeks of central Texas. We watched them delight in the natural world around them, taken in by a caring mixed-age group of kids.

Free Forest School of New York City

One of the first Free Forest School events in Brooklyn, NY in May of 2015.

When we moved to Brooklyn temporarily in 2015, I wanted to recreate that experience in the city – free play in nature, in community. I attended a DIY forest school group in Queens once prior to launching the “Prospect Park Free Forest School” on Facebook. I was inspired by the Scandinavian forest school tradition, and was hoping to find a few neighbors to meet in the park to recreate the experience for our urban kids. Overnight, the group attracted more than 100 members. The enthusiasm from other parents was phenomenal from the start!

How much has FFS grown since that first session in Brooklyn?

A couple months later, it was time for my family to return to Austin. I left the Prospect Park group in capable hands and started the Free Forest School of Austin in the fall of 2015. Despite a completely different geographic and cultural landscape, the concept of Free Forest School was again met with such enthusiasm. Since that time, the Austin group has grown to serve hundreds of families each week, led by passionate and skilled parent volunteers, innovating new methods to engage and enable kids as they mature. I moved on to Minneapolis, where I quickly tapped into a newly-forming community of like-minded parents led by Merideth Ludwig, and the Free Forest School of the Twin Cities was born. Over time, the group of volunteers running both the local and national efforts has widened, and together we have helped parents start Free Forest School groups in more than 30 North American locations. I think we all delight in knowing that our efforts have helped many parents give their kids the gift of unstructured play in nature.

Free Forest School of Austin, TX

The Free Forest School of Austin, Texas launched in the fall of 2015 with just a few families.

Just as my own kids were my initial inspiration for Free Forest School, they continue to inspire me to find new ways to bring free play and time in nature into children’s lives. This year, I created a year-long phenology curriculum for kindergartners and piloted it at my son’s public school. Several groups around the country are trying out new approaches, including homeschool groups for elementary-aged children and co-op preschool groups that advance the learning of children age 4-6 with tools and skill-building.

In May of 2017, our founding Board of Directors incorporated Free Forest School as a non-profit organization. A small but fierce team, the Board is made of committed and skilled Free Forest School parents from around the U.S. including Emily Bujold (facilitator at Free Forest School of Minneapolis), Irene Dooling (Director of Free Forest School of Austin, TX), Ashley Hooker (Director of Free Forest School of Minneapolis), and Phoebe Vaughan (Co-director of Free Forest School of New York City). Today, Free Forest School is an organization led by many, on both the local grassroots and national levels.

Why do you think FFS is so magnetic nationwide?

Wanting to do everything and provide everything we can for our kids, many parents feel stressed, judged, overtired, and unable to really enjoy parenting. The deluge of parenting books and philosophies, as well as the trend toward academic early learning, puts a huge amount of pressure on parents. In my gut, I think intuition and love are our best parenting guides. When I have the time to slow down and observe my children’s development and needs, I am more effective, loving, relaxed and happy. I think many, many others share versions of this story – craving a simpler, slower, more intuitive parenting style. Free Forest School aims to empower parents to trust their children’s lead, to give children the gift of freedom, respect, and space to grow. In that environment, children develop their innate sense of wonder and instinctively explore the themes and skills that they need most at any given stage of development. Being in nature gives us all a chance to slow down, and diminishes the restrictions we need to place on kids’ behaviors – it is the perfect place to practice a “less is more” type of parenting, in a supportive community.

High in a tree in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

What is your favorite part about FFS as a participant?

It’s hard to pick just one! I guess at the forefront for me is the delight I take in watching children become independent and confident through their repeated experiences in nature and in community. Children who feel a sense of agency in their own lives – choosing what they want to do, making important decisions about risk and safety, developing friendships and navigating conflict in a mixed age group — are well on their way to becoming engaged, thinking members of society. I see so many settings where children are not being respected as whole little people, and I think that’s not only detrimental to them but also to society. Seeing confident, joyful, energetic kids making their way in nature with compassion for one another and a love for the natural world gives me great hope in a very trying and sad time. On a very personal level, I’m a much better parent outdoors than in and I love to climb and explore.

What have you and your kids learned about yourselves in the process?

I have learned that parenting can be very simple. Not to say it’s easy – or always fun. But I have learned to take the time to observe my children – and to let my observations of their needs and my desire to see them confident, engaged and happy guide and shape our lifestyle. I’ve made true friends in unexpected places through Free Forest School and really delight in the diversity of people I have gotten to know. I am immeasurably thankful for the parenting support I have found through this experience – just like parenting, Free Forest School can be fun and it can be really un-fun, but it’s always real and I always have people to laugh about it with.

Teaching Kids to be Gentle

Children who spend time in nature will grow up to love and defend it.

My kids… On the one hand, I think they’re just doing what they do and there is nothing exceptional about them – and on the other, I see their development as magical and miraculous. They are the real stars – I’ve just learned to get out of their way. I could go into detail about their increased confidence with physical challenge, risk assessment, conflict resolution, assertiveness; their imaginative play and inventions; their astounding gentleness and love for nature… But the short version is that Free Forest School has supported them to grow as whole people, each of them on their own path.

What is your vision for the future of FFS?

In my mind, the goal is to inspire as many parents and educators as possible to give the gift of free, unstructured time in natural spaces to kids as possible. Right now, we are serving a small slice of the population – children who have a stay-at-home parent or caregiver who is inspired to bring them – and one goal is to continue to support and empower those parents to make Free Forest School experiences available to their communities. The greater vision is to push forward a cultural shift toward unstructured play and time in nature for all kids, regardless of family income, race, religion, language, or other factors. We can do that through reaching out to preschools and childcare centers, to parents who don’t have access to transportation or face other barriers to joining, and to public schools. We can also become an advocate on local, state and national levels to push for more recess time, play, and outdoor learning. Free Forest School recently incorporated as a non-profit in order to increase our sustainability and start tackling some of these loftier goals.

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