New Brunswick

Forest school raises free-range, resilient kids and happy moms

At Hawthorn Hill Academy outside Moncton, children splash in a stream, climb trees and build a campfire as part of the forest school's programs that allow them freedom to explore.

Hawthorn Hill Academy offers the forest to families who want more outdoor time and less technology

Klaver Good, 6, hangs happily from a tree at Hawthorn Hill Academy's forest school in Irishtown. He loves to explore in the stream for rocks and has already learned to build a fire. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

As Klaver Good hangs upside down from a tree above a stream at Hawthorn Hill Academy, he explains that he is "a really good climber."

The six-year-old, who has just completed his kindergarten year at the non-profit forest school, moves confidently from the trees, to the water, to the fire.

"Don't put anything wet," he warns one of his classmates as he pokes a stick in the campfire.

Hawthorn Hill Academy is located on 3½ acres in Irishtown, about a 10-minute drive from Moncton.

Randi Good, who is a board member for the school and also Klaver's mom, said children are given free rein.

Klaver, 6, always looks forward to helping to build a fire at the Monton-area forest school. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"We have a beautiful stream flowing through, which gives the kids a lot of exploring, a lot of adventuring, the different elements every day."

It was just a week ago that Klaver was reaching for a rock in the stream and fell in, but his mom wasn't upset. She said the students are always closely supervised by their parents and the teachers, and her son has now learned to pay attention to the changing height of the water.

"He's been really interested in all the minerals and stuff, went to reach for a rock and he fell in right up to his neck five minutes after arriving here. So today he's like, 'Oh, it's not so deep today.'" 

The point of it all is just to get kids outside in nature to be kids. To get back to…a simple childhood and to have fun and explore outside.- Randi Good, Hawthorn Hill Academy

When Klaver tells the story of going for an unexpected swim he says the water was cold, but he dried out quickly because "it was a nice day and it was really sunny."

His mom laughs, saying this is just one example of the resilience children learn when they are allowed to explore and to make mistakes.

"Even if its pouring rain and cold, they can find the best out of it and still have happiness and push through the negative and enjoy themselves … resilience in this world is a valuable tool."

'They are capable if we teach them' 

Hawthorn Hill Academy offers weekly programs for young children, up to the age of seven.

This summer, for the first time, day camps are being offered for children between 3½ and 15.

Kayden Armstrong, 3, enjoys a snack next to the fire after splashing around in the nearby stream. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

With themes like forest ninja, stealth and evasion, and survival, the campers will be given the opportunity to learn about whatever appeals to them.

Good said unlike sports camps, where some children clearly excel, at Hawthorn Hill Academy there's no standard to keep up with, and everyone will participate "at their own pace."

"They can really just be themselves. There's no expectations," she said. "The point of it all is just to get kids outside in nature to be kids. To get back to … a simple childhood and to have fun and explore outside."

Campers will be given the chance to master tools including axes, knives and matches, under close supervision.

"They learn to respect the tools that they're working with. They learn to respect the forest, respect the rules of their teachers and through that common respect they're given much more opportunity."

Randy Good, along with her sons Klaver, age 6, and Axton, age 3, wants to give her boys a "simple childhood." (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Good said her three-year-old son Axton has had a few nicks but has learned to use a knife safely and often helps in the kitchen.

"They are capable if we teach them," Good said.

"If we shelter them their entire life they're not going to be able to learn. At 13, we can't just all of a sudden expect them to pick up a knife and know how to cook or know how to properly make a fire, if we haven't nurtured that in them their entire life."

Young moms find community

Forest school teacher and mom Heidi O'Connor started bringing her young daughters to the Oaks and Acorns program last year.

When asked how she describes her job she starts laughing.

"I usually just say, 'I take kids out into the woods and let them run amok.'"

Heidi O'Connor, with her two-year-old daughter, Maisie, is one of the teachers at Hawthorn Hill Academy. She believes kids need spaces with no rules, where they 'can be authentically themselves.' (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

O'Connor believes having virtually no rules is good for children whose lives are filled with too much structure.

"It's just a space where they can be authentically themselves, and no one's going to judge what they're doing."

Good believes this lack of judgment is also a welcome break for parents who, like her, often feel bombarded by technology and expectation.

Hawthorne Hill Academy is a new school in Moncton. But it doesn't look like a normal school. There are no smart boards or computers. Instead, there is a firepit, trees and a stream. The CBCs Vanessa Blanch spent the morning at the forest school with a class of young students. 10:45

Good discovered forest school after trying the usual organized play groups and daycare when her first son was born.

"I could not, as a twenty-something mom, connect with anyone. Because they would go in cliques, and no one talks and then it's all about, 'My son is doing this at this age,' or, 'We have this new toy,' and we didn't really connect with that," she said.

"I found a lot of it really discouraging. It was just really hectic and the energy wasn't good."

Good said that in the forest, there are no toys to fight over and there are no distractions.

"It's important that they have a connection to nature because as kids grow nowadays with technology and all the organized sports and being over-scheduled — I think it's just nice for families to be able to come out here and just connect."

When students arrive at Hawthorn Academy they are free to explore the trees, stream and forest. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

For many students, O'Connor said, forest school is their first experience in a wild space.

"There are some kids who came, even in the older group, who had never been around a fire before and they said, 'Why is it making that crackling noise?' They just had never seen one."  

For Good, watching the students gravitate toward different elements when they arrive at base camp is fascinating.

"Some kids just sit at the fire, listen to the birds. Some kids build structures. It's really always interesting to see who needs what."

City kids head to the country

As children clad in their rain suits lie down in the slow-running stream, add birch bark to the fire, or sit on a log eating their snack, parents happily sip their coffee out of travel mugs.

Emily Murphy enjoys being outside in the forest with two-year-old Claire and eight-month-old Isla. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Emily Murphy comes every week with her two-year-old daughter Claire and eight-month-old daughter Isla.

She lives in the north end of Moncton and said she's been impressed with how much Claire's independence has grown.

"I don't want her getting into something that she can't get out of, but I do want her to build that confidence to know she is capable of getting through these things and surmounting these obstacles."

"I kind of let her do her thing, and when she needs help she knows I'm right there to ask."

Jaime Quirk, with three-year-old Elliott and 18-month-old Madeleine, wants her children to enjoy the outdoors and hopes to continue spending time with them in the forest. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Jamie Quirk grew up camping and said being outside with her three-year-old son Elliott and 18-month-old Madeleine gives her a sense of calm.

"They know how to explore a playground, which is one thing, but to explore out in the woods, I think, is a completely different thing."

Jennifer Gadd and her 15-month-old son Ashwin moved to Moncton from a condo in downtown Toronto just a couple of months ago.

She said for her and her husband, access to nature was one of the key reasons.

"You know you could sit for an hour on [Highway] 401 and get nowhere, so it's pretty exciting to just be in the woods … the accessibility of the nature and getting outside so easily is a big factor of why we came."

Hawthorn Hill Academy's board of directors has decided to pursue weekly forest school programs rather than a full-time day school because government red-tape and regulations are onerous. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Hopes for Waldorf day school delayed

Good said the goal has always been to open a day-school for children in kindergarten through Grade 8, but for now the board has decided to set those plans aside and instead focus on the weekly forest school programs and the introduction of summer camps.

"The problem being just so many regulations and so much red tape to get through." she said.

Since there won't be a full-time forest school in the city, Good has decided to home school her children rather than send them to public school.

"I always thought I would have the career and do everything in the mainstream way, but everything clicked for [Klaver] through nature and through being more creative," she said.

Good said giving up her job as an accountant and staying home, where she works with her husband, has given her family the freedom to pursue the life she thinks is best for her children.

Parents and children who are part of the Oaks and Acorns program at Hawthorn Hill Academy gather around a fire as they arrive in the forest. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

As the children get ready to head home after a sunny morning in the woods, their teacher lets out a big howl.

"The rule is they have to howl back and come to the teacher," O'Connor explains.

Amid a chorus of howls, little ones in rain suits and rubber boots come running back to the fire.

"When I see them out here, I know it's all worth it because they are just free," Good said as she looked around at all of the dirty faces. "Honestly, it's my favourite thing in the world."

About the Author

Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for nearly 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please e-mail: vanessa.blanch@cbc.ca

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