OLDHAM COUNTY (WHAS11) – When a classroom doesn’t have walls you make do with what you’ve got.
That is exactly what Thrive Forest School provides its students. It is the Louisville area's first nature-based preschool at Creasy Mahan Nature Preserve in Oldham County. The students are outside experiencing nature all day, every day, no matter the weather.
Three to five-year-olds are exploring and learning everything you would in a regular classroom, but they are doing it out in Mother Nature.
"When it's snowing or it's raining, when all of other programs are doing indoor recess, that's when we're outside because that's when learning is at its best. These kids are excited by weather. You know, our motto here is there's no such thing as bad weather, there's just bad clothing choices. So, if our kids are dressed warm, if they're dry, then they're out here and exploring and learning. They're getting all of the benefits of an outdoor classroom, and they're comfortable the whole time," program director Ryan Devlin said. "We're not a boot camp. We're not out here to prove anything. If the kids aren't happy, if they're not engaged, if they're not having fun, then we'll move inside. We have an amazing nature center here. If it's too cold, if there's high winds, or if there's lightning in the vicinity, we're automatically inside."
Devlin and his family moved to the area about a year and a half ago and started searching for a preschool for their son.
"Because we couldn't find a program, we decided to start one," Devlin said.
For a year, he trained under premier forest programs in Chattanooga and Seattle. They piloted it as a summer program, and it immediately sold out. The preschool launched this past fall. The idea isn’t new, and it's actually very popular in Europe.
"There's 1500 of them in Western Germany. There's thousands of them in all of Western Europe. They've been doing it for 50 years, and they've found that it's really the best way that you can give a child the foundation that they need to excel in primary school and beyond," Devlin said. "We're not an academic program meaning we're not teaching kids, but the kids are learning a lot. We give them the power to follow their curiosities."
There are now more than 300 forest schools in the United States.
“The research is actually really conclusive…The children who attend a program like this, prove to be far more resilient,” Ryan Devlin, the director of Thrive Forest School, said. "You have this self-confidence that you build in knowing you can have fun in the rain, in the snow, and all of the conditions. There's a high level of creative problem-solving that you get when you're out in a forest classroom. It gives kids this real strong foundation to be able to go into first grade, second grade, third grade, and beyond and excel in those academic settings, but they also have this strength. They foster this love of learning that really serves them in years well beyond the early childhood years."
The demand is high, but Devlin said they do have a few openings for the 2019-2020 school year. Class size is small as well.
"We have two teachers and ten kids, so it's a 5:1 ratio," Devlin said.
When the weather is not sunny, Devlin said forest classrooms are learning at the best time.
“These kids are learning huge concepts--STEM concepts, hydrology, buoyancy,” Devlin said. “The snow, we are learning about freezing and thawing cycles.”
Some of Devlin’s current students started in a normal classroom setting but have come to Thrive Forest School and excelled.
"Don't we just want our kids to be kids for a while? So many days are scheduled from one practice to one class to tutoring to day care, and we live really busy lives. Here at Thrive, for three hours, at least we know that our kids are outside just being kids- stomping and splashing and digging and playing and laughing and learning in a natural setting," Devlin said. "It's a really well thought out program, and at the end of the day, it's a lot of muddy fun."