Grass is greener
Outdoor school develops children’s appreciation of nature by immersing them in it
In a field at Bidwell Park, surrounded by billowing oak trees and with the sound of Big Chico Creek drifting from the banks below, about 12 preschool children sat with Brian Kehoe, along with his two staff members, singing songs and rolling in the grass on a crisp fall day.
The group of spry 3- and 4-year-olds wasn’t on a field trip—this was an everyday preschool experience for the kids at Happy Acres Forest School, founded by Kehoe, a former public school teacher. With no building to call home base, the school is held at Five-Mile Recreation Area.
“You can’t bounce off the walls if you don’t have any,” Kehoe quipped.
Kehoe spent nearly 20 years in public schools, most of them with Chico Unified School District, when one day he decided to question the education system.
“I was always thinking, 4-year-olds in a box; I knew in my heart that’s not what they needed,” he said.
The seeds for Happy Acres Forest School had been planted. Kehoe had heard about forest schools from a friend, and after doing some research decided to open his own. He spent the next two years training and researching, and eventually spent six months in Germany observing a school that follows the same principles.
Upon returning to the States, Kehoe formed an LLC and took out insurance for the school. There are currently no licensing regulations in California foroutdoor preschools, though Kehoe says he expects there will be soon. He has his California teaching credential and a permit to use the park through the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission.
The school, which opened in September, aims to inspire a lifelong dedication to environmental stewardship and a sense of community through a deep connection to nature. Kehoe says when children are in natural environments, they gain a better understanding of how all of life is connected, and they experience how their actions influence the world around them. With that knowledge, he hopes the children will make choices in their daily lives to improve the health of the Earth, themselves and each other.
“We tell stories about nature and about how Mother Nature is going to put a blanket down to keep the seeds warm for the winter,” said Kehoe, who is the director of the school. “They hear the stories, but then they see it happen. It’s really cool.”
During a recent visit to the park, Kehoe had arts and crafts for the children as well as a box of tools, including hammers and nails, drills and saws, for teaching them basic skills. He and his staff, which includes his daughter, Kaia, allow the children to learn as they become curious about a subject.
“Our job is to provide them the space to be trained in imaginative play,” he said. “It’s great to watch them discover.”
The kids are provided with a rain suit to protect them against inclement weather. Kehoe also has a tarp that acts as a makeshift shelter when it’s raining. The elements are just part of being in nature, he says.
Happy Acres operates with no more than 12 children on any given day. Tuition is $2,000 per semester for a five-day week that runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., though there are options for part-time enrollment.
Abigail Rasmussen, whose 3-year-old son, Maceo, attends the school, recalled picking him up one day and, during the car ride home, getting an unsolicited lesson on how trees grow.
“He is getting a lot of information on environmental things that he probably wouldn’t have gotten from a traditional preschool,” Rasmussen said. “I like that those are part of his daily education.”
According to a recent survey by the North American Association for Environmental Education, the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens operating in the U.S. is at an all-time high, with more than 250 nature preschools and kindergartens across the country—up from 150 in 2016. There are about 10,000 children enrolled in the schools and 80 percent of the institutions reported having a waiting list.
“It’s amazing how many there are now,” Kehoe said.
For now, Kehoe says he’s comfortable with the size of Happy Acres and has no immediate plans to expand the school and take more children. However, he did say that he hopes his program inspires others to get excited about the concept and that more schools like his pop up in the area.
“It’s a really neat way for kids to develop and grow whole,” he said.