Ashley Hall, Marketing Coordinator
Thursday, July 1, 2021

The Shaker Forest School’s classroom is a bit messier, muddier, and more fun than the traditional classroom.

This past year brought many challenges for educators as schools closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One local group, now officially named The Shaker Forest School, broke free from digital screens and traditional classrooms to hold their preschool classes in a different kind of classroom – The Nature Center at Shaker Lakes’ outdoor classroom. For 8 months, from September 2020 to May 2021, the Shaker Forest School traded their formal classroom for our outdoor spaces and habitats. This partnership allowed the school to continue to hold daily classes in a safe, outdoor environment, and allowed the Nature Center to share our outdoor trails and habitats with the next generation of environmental stewards.

The Shaker Forest School LLC, officially opening this fall, is a group of educators and families from the Shaker Heights Cooperative Preschool passionate about immersing kids in nature, both mentally and physically. Instead of gathering in a classroom, the group would hike to a base camp around the Nature Center or Lower Lake. After snack and story time, children had free exploration time and then hike back to the meeting area before dismissal.

Outdoor education is beneficial to children’s physical, cognitive and mental development. The physical aspects are the most obvious: developing gross motor skills jumping, climbing, running, and navigating uneven terrain. There are ample opportunities for fine motor development, too, picking up small items like acorns, twigs, rocks, playing in the mud, using hands to climb, or skipping rocks. When it comes to traditional preschool approaches to learning – early math, early reading, science and social studies – being outside provides for all these opportunities — but in a different form. In an outdoor school, children are classifying, sorting, via verbal documentation, drawings and nature journaling, creating maps, inquiring about signage, using guidebooks to learn about plants and animals, and learning about environmental and civic stewardship. Mentally, being outside has proven to positively affect all aspects of emotional health.

“The children naturally named the places we explored (the faraway place, the stick spot, the ducky place, etc.) and created maps without modeling from adults. They noticed whether water was frozen or not, what plants started to grow in the spring, what changes were happening in the fall. We became aware of the animals and birds that call the Nature Center home, and sought to find red-tailed hawks, blue jays, cardinals, and more. They learned the chickadee calls, the difference between squirrel and rabbit tracks, and observed deer paths.” Amber Malek, Director of Shaker Forest School.

Research shows that time in nature, especially wild or un-landscaped nature helps people of all ages be happier and calmer. Time in nature helps children focus during lessons and perform better on standardized tests. Also, increasing research is showing that young children need to move their bodies, making new connections in their brain, in preparation for language, reading and other cognitive development. At a time when academics are continually being pushed down to our younger students, providing opportunities for children to explore, move their bodies and naturally inquire about the world around them provides a foundation of love for learning – not to mention an appreciation for nature. These are foundations embraced by the Shaker Forest School.

Shaker Forest School students are encouraged to explore, use their senses, and learn through exploring nature.

Enjoying and respecting nature go hand in hand. The children learned about spaces that are good for playing versus those that need to be protected/respected in order to respect animals’ space, for safety, or to help plants grow. The school group’s intention was to leave the spaces utilized better than they found them, some days even spending time collecting litter and glass from creek beds and trails. As the environment constantly changed throughout the year due to weather, seasons and animal habitats, these conversations provided valuable lessons for the children.

Though many children love nature, many have varying levels of comfort with the outdoors. Amber Malek, Director of Shaker Forest School, recalls seeing change in children. “One child in particular was initially very scared of mud. However, over the course of the year and with more exposure to the outdoors, she became more comfortable, and it was an amazing sight to see.” In an outdoor classroom setting, the Shaker Forest School educators have found that preschoolers have become keenly more aware of the natural environment around them.

The Shaker Forest School were thrilled to have a classroom during COVID. “We were so grateful to be at the Nature Center this year! As educators, we don’t want to go back to the classroom. Being outdoors provided a naturally emergent curriculum that engaged the children in meaningful ways. Every day was a new adventure!” said Amber. While this was a one-year, rare agreement that was feasible due to many program cancellations at the Nature Center during COVID, the school is currently exploring other partnerships and outdoor spaces to continue this type of outdoor setting moving forward.

“We chose the Nature Center because it is a well-loved space in the Heights. All of the educators and families were familiar with the Nature Center. The grounds also provided diversity in spaces to explore, from the boardwalk to the floodplain. The trails are well-maintained and parking is convenient. The Nature Center is a perfect place for an outdoor preschool!”

Interested in signing your child up for Shaker Forest School? Visit www.shakerforestschool.com and follow them on Instagram @shakerforeschool and Facebook www.facebook.com/shakerforestschool, or by emailing: info@shakerforestschool.com.