Forest School: You can get outside safely

You don't need to socially distance yourself from the birds and bees Anne Arundel’s Free Forest School is a growing local group that encourages unstructured play in the outdoors for kids from 2 weeks to 10 years. While the current virus emergency has curtailed recent gatherings, the parent organization continues to encourages parents and caretakers to get their children outside in ways that will not endanger anyone. “We want to affirm that outdoor play is important for our mental and physical health, particularly in times of stress,” the parent organization said in an email release regarding the situation. “Free Forest School encourages families to continue to find ways to get outside with your kids during this time.” Katie Swarthout, 25, of Davidsonville, is co-director of the Anne Arundel chapter along with another parent who is a local resident. “We made the decision to cancel when public schools are canceled,” Swarthout said. “The national Free Forest School then asked us to cancel everything. People (in our group) are still definitely exploring the forest, just not in groups. There have been recommendations that you are still allowed to go to parks as long as you are maintaining distances between other families.” The group leader encourages families to enjoy their backyards or parks, just being sure to maintain those healthy distances and not gather in groups. They are also sharing tips and ideas on how best to do that on their Facebook page, Swarthout said. Although the group has well over 800 members on its Facebook page, she said group outings were generally attracting from three to 25 children, not counting their adults. The group's official outings have a regular routine. Four groups have regularly participated. Two meet weekly. One meets bi-weekly and one would meet monthly. They gather at local parks which have no entrance fees in areas that have no playgrounds or bodies of water nearby which can be a distraction to the kids. Events start with snack time and follow with what Swarthout called a “meander” through the woods to a prescouted base camp. Once there, kids can play for 30 minutes to an hour. Then they gather in a circle for a book reading and/or a finger play, like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” When scheduled the outings take place in most weather consitions, with the exception of weather conditions considered to be hazardous to members. Some hazard is intrinsic in outdoor play and that can be part of the attraction of it, Swarthout said. Hazards can teach children boundaries and limits. While there are facilitators at the events, they are not there to supervise the children, enforce safety measures, or provide first aid. That responsibility falls on the childrens’ parents or caretakers, Swarthout emphasized. Parents and caretakers must sign a waiver before joining the group. Precautions aside, outside unstructured play provides multiple benefits to kids, group advocates believe. “Unstructured play just really helps the kids imagination and their problem solving skills.,” Swarthout said. “I think it just helps them be more curious and want to learn, versus trying to teach them as they are curious.” The co-director also said critical thinking and social skills can be developed at the events along with gross motor skills from physical outdoor free play. And it can be fun for the parents and caregivers too. “It's always fun to watch two kids trying to figure out how to balance or build something, and just watching those critical thinking skills,” she said, “Or the social skills of how to communicate what I want, and how to measure that and also compromise.” Friendships have been made through the group, both with the adults and children. Kids often ask where familiar playmates are if they show up at an event and others don’t. Parents and caretakers have also created bonds that extend beyond the school. “I’ve made a ton (of friends),” she said. “The other director and I, we hang out pretty often and just let our friends play together.” Members hail from all over Anne Arundel County and events take at parks like Beverly Triton Nature Park in Edgewater, Spriggs Farm Park in Arnold and the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. The group is a fairly new phenomena, having just started a few years ago. Sometimes the benefits can be suprising. Parents have found that by bringing their kids to the events they were actually immersing their children in a language-rich environment. The group has had Swedish, German and Portuguese-speaking participants on recent trips. Whatever language is spoken, the families of Anne Arundel’s Free Forest School have found a home away from home in the woods. The virus may have separated them from each other for now, but their common passions will surely bring them back together, once the danger has passed. Not too far off they will be meandering through the forest as a group again ready to explore wild Anne Arundel and beyond. "It's hard to get outside,” Swarthout said. “But I've really found a community and a group of people that I love to spend time with. I was real excited when I found that we have one close by."