If it can happen in Brooklyn, it can happen here.
That may be the mantra of Rachel Schwartzman, director of Forest Days, an outdoor learning program that will involve kindergarteners from C.W. Henry School spending a day in Carpenter’s Woods every week to supplement their classroom work this school year. Her involvement with the program began as a kindergarten teacher at the Brooklyn New School. During her 12 years there, she, fellow teachers, and her students would spend one day a week at Prospect Park, immersing themselves in hands-on, outdoor learning.
“[It became] everybody’s favorite day of the week,” she recalled. “The families loved it, the kids loved it, and the teachers were really excited to have this different quality of time with the students.”
When Schwartzman moved to Philadelphia in 2016, she wanted to continue the program here. Kindergarteners at Wissahickon Charter School’s Awbury campus in East Mt. Airy kicked off the Philly version of Forest Days at Awbury Arboretum last year. The program will continue there this school year.
Forest Days is modeled after the forest schools found throughout Europe. In those schools, young students spend every day or several days a week learning outdoors. The program is an offshoot of the Eastern Region of Forest and Nature Schools, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit. Forest school-type programs exist in the United States, but mostly in private schools.
“We’re focused on trying to create a template that other public schools can adopt,” Schwartzman said.
Philadelphia’s many green spaces make it an ideal location for Forest Days to develop and grow. However, those spaces aren’t always located within walking distance to schools.
“It [involves] figuring out how to connect to that green space when they’re not walking,” Schwartzman said. “That’s going to be a challenge, because I’m told that the cost of buses is quite high.”
To address that challenge, and pay for the program, Schwartzman started a GoFundMe page last month: https://www.gofundme.com/urban-forest-school-philly-pilot. The cost for one child to participate in Forest Days for the school year is $220.
Along with giving kids valuable learning time outdoors, Forest Days also provides training for teachers. “We seek to inspire and ignite the same curiosity and sense of wonder and possibility in the teachers as we do within the children,” Schwartzman wrote in an Aug. 19 email. “We want this program to sustain well beyond the years of mentoring so that the teachers are confident to continue this work on their own.”