I sent my child into the forest with strangers and he came out more alive then ever!
Did you know that Orcas Island has a Forest School? Forest School is relatively new idea in America but has been successful and commonplace in many European countries for several decades. The Orcas Island Forest School offers a play-based, all- outdoor, nature immersed and child directed education. Children ages 2.5 to 6 years old learn and play together in a multi-age, outdoor setting.
When I first heard about the Forest School model I was instantly intrigued. My son Johnny wasn’t quite old enough and hadn’t fully potty trained so I had time to think it over. I teach at Orcas Island Public School where I created and teach a class called Farm to Classroom. I consider myself and outdoor educator since my classes take place in our school garden for most of the school year. I have seen first hand how valuable it is for children to spend time immersed in nature. I have seen the excitement of discovery. The glow of rosy cheeks, flush from the warmth of the sun or the sting of the wind and how that translates to a mind fully engaged. I want more of this for all of our school children. Ultimately I knew this was what I wanted for my youngest child too.
I signed my son up for the morning session, two days a week. We talked about it. He seemed excited. We went on vacation and missed the open house day. We returned from vacation and tried to connect for a quick visit before the first day but life was hectic and it didn’t happen. I drove Johnny to see the forest site the evening before his first day. He seemed to be excited.
On the day of Forest School we wake up early and pack Johnny’s lunch, something he has never done before. He is excited to get dressed and wear his long-johns under his clothes. We fill his new backpack with extra clothes, a water bottle, and the packed lunch. We get in the car and drive down the hill and across the main road to the back entrance of Camp Orkila where the Forest School is held. As we drive through the woods Johnny says, “Mommy, the woods are dark.” He is right, they are. Next he tells me he is nervous, gulp. We arrive and park in front of the big red barn. We meet another little boy who is coming for his first day also. We walk over to meet one of the teachers who is waiting in the field near the forest edge. Johnny starts to cling. Then he wants me to hold him. When we get to the teacher he can no longer speak. Oh no! I start to really regret not going to the open house! I know he is going to be safe and have a great time, but he is not quite three years old and he doesn’t have the same perspective. All of the children arrive and it is time for them to walk together into the deep dark forest, leaving their parents behind. Johnny is clinging tightly now. He won’t let go, he won’t say goodbye. I give him a hug and a nudge. His new teacher reaches down and asks if Johnny needs a hand with his new backpack. They walk off into the forest together. I hold my breath. I watch. At the edge of the forest he turns around and I wave. It is time for me to turn and walk back to the big red barn. As I do, I hear Johnny yell “momma” in that panicked voice that every parent fears. I wave again but keep walking. I hear him yell again and this time he is crying. Oh my God, I have just sent my son into the woods with complete strangers and he thinks I am abandoning him! I am the worst mom in the world! The other mothers comfort me in the parking area. I can still hear my sweet little boy crying for me and it is ripping my heart out. I start to cry. One of the other moms walks into the forest to see if the teachers want me to come get Johnny. She returns to report that he was in the arms of one of the teachers “snuggled like a bear cub”. He was whimpering, but showing interest in his surroundings. The other moms convince me to leave. The teachers have my number and I live just a two minute drive away. I drive away with tears in my eyes. I get home and look down at the forest below where I have just left my son, and I pray that I have made the right decision. Within a few minutes the phone rings, “Is this Johnny’s mom?” Oh no! My heart skips a beat. It is one of his teachers calling to tell me that Johnny has stopped crying and is currently exploring the forest with the other children. Yay!
Two very long hours later I return to the camp and walk into the forest to the meet Johnny at the covered area where they hang back packs and keep supplies. My heart is racing as I get closer. I can’t wait to wrap my arms around my sweet little boy. I can’t wait for him to see that I haven’t abandoned him. But he is nowhere to be seen? I see other kids. Where is Johnny? One of the teacher sees my face and kind of nods in the direction of some little Superman boots sticking out from behind the shelter. I hear some whispering and snickering. I know this game! “Where is Johnny?” I ask loudly. He comes running out with his arms wide open. His smile is huge and his cheeks are flushed. Sigh.
There is no time to ask the teachers how things went. Johnny is running into the forest leading me to his “favorite tree” and then off to his “favorite rock” and then shouting excitedly that he heard a wood pecker just like the one at our house.
We finally get back to pick up his backpack and say goodbye. As he emerges from the forest I see that he has put his backpack on his front. I realize that it is much too big and he tells me that if he wears it this way it doesn’t tip him over!
He leads me to some rocks and we sit on the biggest rock to eat his lunch. He talks excitedly about his morning in the forest. He tells me he wants to come back again and again. Phew! I am not the worst mom in the world after all!
I am so excited that my youngest son has this opportunity. We have many amazing pre-school and school options on Orcas Island, all of them are unique and wonderful. I am grateful to live in a place that values the education and well-being of all our children. What a wonderful community to live in.
Mandy lives with her family on Orcas Island where she teaches at the local Elementary School and sells real estate at T Williams Realty.