Free Forest Schools offers nature as a classroom for young children

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Diane Peltz – Contributing Writer

If it’s Wednesday it must be Winding Stair Gap Day.  That is the new location of the Franklin area Free Forest School of Southern Blue Ridge. Children up to six years of age are able to take part in the exploration of natural wonders along the Gap. The tour is facilitated by a parent volunteer. Children and their parents meet on Wednesdays and spend the afternoon exploring, getting wet, and learning about the wonders that nature provides.

Free Forest School of Southern Blue Ridge (GA/SC) meets several times weekly throughout the year at nearby wilderness areas. Children share a snack, take a hike, play in the woods, and have circle time. Parents and caregivers get a chance to unplug and step back… Kids and their imaginations take the lead.

In addition to Macon County, participants also hail from Rabun County, Stephens County, and Habersham County, Ga., and Oconee County, S.C.

The beginning

The concept for Free Forest Schools started with Anna Sharrat, founder. She and her family were avid rock climbers in Texas and her goal was to get out into nature to climb whenever possible. She was fortunate enough to become a part of a community of families that chose to spend their free time outdoors together. Her children spent their earliest days playing in sandy caves, among scrub oaks, and alongside the creeks of central Texas.  When the family moved to Brooklyn in 2015, Sharrat wanted to recreate that experience in the city. She attended a DIY Forest School in Queens, prior to launching the “Prospect Park Free Forest School” on Facebook. She was inspired by the Scandinavian Forest School tradition and was hoping to find a few neighbors to meet in the park to recreate the experience for their urban kids. The group attracted more than 100 members by the next day. Several months later the family returned to Austin, Texas, where she began another chapter of Free Forest Schools. The family ultimately moved to Minneapolis where she quickly tapped into a newly forming community of like-minded parents. The Free Forest School of the Twin Cities was born.

Over time the Free Forest Schools have taken off in more than 30 North American locations. In May 2017, the founding Board of Directors incorporated Free Forest School as a nonprofit organization. The small but fierce team is made up of committed and skilled Free Forest School parents from around the United States.

What to expect

Each meeting starts with a 20-minute mingling and snacking period. After a short introductory talk, the group sets off down the trail toward basecamp or another chosen destination. The walk may go quickly, or the group may find places to explore and play along the way. Since Free Forest School is child-led, sometimes the kids head in various directions, or some kids may just decide to explore close to the starting point; whatever they choose is fine.

After arriving at basecamp, the children have free play time. Eventually, the facilitator of the day will initiate the start of circle time – songs and stories. After circle time, some picnic and keep playing; others depart for naps or other activities.

How to paticipate

It is easy to find all the information you need to know, on Facebook. Type in Free Forest School of Southern Blue Ridge and join the group. 

Parents will first need to sign a waiver. Then, click on the Events tab there to see the upcoming schedule. Finally, make sure you’ve read the rest of the FAQs on this page before attending your first event so you know what to expect. Here in Franklin the chapter is Free Forest School of Southern Blue Ridge, for now. Work is in progress to incorporate Macon and Jackson counties as a chapter, separate from the Blue Ridge chapter. Then just show up at Winding Stair Gap on Wednesday afternoon and prepare to have fun, and remember you can go to any event on any given day even if it is in Georgia or South Carolina, if you care to travel a bit. Older children are also always welcome to participate with their younger siblings. So remember,  if it’s Wednesday, it must be Winding Stair Gap.

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