HUDDLESTON, Va. (WFXR) — Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began more than two years ago, plenty of parents and students have considered alternative learning options. One school near Smith Mountain Lake is offering students an educational experience with no walls or desks, just the great outdoors.
At ONE Forest School — located in the Deerhead Nature Preserve in Huddleston — students gear up for an adventure to learn.
“We are an outdoor school and we don’t have traditional textbooks or books or paper, pencil,” said Janelle Helfer, director of education for ONE Forest School. “We still do meet all of the requirements set upon us for Virginia’s standards of learning.”
ONE Forest School describes itself as an academically accredited private school — as well as nonprofit forest school — where students are educated and inspired through exposure to nature.
“Forest schools teach, at their base, emotional intelligence and it’s teaching children communication skills, how to effectively communicate,” said Catherine Eubank, the founder and CEO of ONE Forest School.
According to officials, forest schools first started in Scandinavia, becoming the standard of Denmark and Sweden’s standard public school curriculum in the 1950s. Now, you can find forest schools worldwide, including ONE Forest School, which is Virginia’s first accredited and internationally recognized forest school.
“It is an alternative way of educating your kids. From bush crafting skills, forest skills, which include knot tying and den building and starting campfires with friction,” Helfer explained.
Rain or shine, Monday through Friday, you can find PreK through 8th-grade students climbing, digging, slashing, and more, all while learning.
“I think they learn more here than they would in a structured classroom,” said parent Amber Williams. “They’ve got more freedom here and I like it a lot better.”
“We are an accredited forest school, and we’re working with VAISEF (Virginia Association of Independent Specialized Education Facilities) to get accreditation for our academic school,” Helfer told WFXR News.
The school’s curriculum is project-based STREAM learning, which stands for science, technology, reading, engineering, art, and math. Those projects also have monthly themes that are based on early American History in order to emphasize patriotism.
According to ONE Forest School, STREAM learning supports social skills, teamwork, responsibility, environmental awareness, and mindfulness.
“A good outlet for kids that like the outdoors. They really like being outdoors, they get the socialization of being with other children,” another parent, Samantha Hogan, said.
Some might wonder, if students learn through play, how are teachers making sure they are reaching their educational benchmarks?
“The difference between us as our outdoor forest school and public school is we don’t move on until the kids are ready,” Helfer stated.
Students may not have workbooks, but staff members use their creativity to teach.
“I’ll take words and build a story on index cards, or I’ll write it on a leaf or even a piece of bark, and I’ll hide it throughout the forest,” said Helfer.
Williams tells WFXR News that since her daughter first started at ONE Forest School, she’s learned a lot.
“She’s almost reading, she knows all her alphabet, she’s making complete sentences, so it’s all been really good,” said Williams.
ONE Forest School has been around for several years, and while enrollment is small, it continues to move forward with its mission to teach emotional intelligence and mindfulness through nature. School officials also hope to expand to other counties in Virginia.
To learn more about ONE Forest School, you can visit the school’s enrollment page or call 540-682-6320.