Forest schools serve a myriad of purposes depending on their location. Environmentalists have established them in regions where habitats of local species have become endangered from the Choco Andino to the Caribbean.
In North America, Worldmind Nature Immersion School stands out for its unique program proven to help special needs children thrive in an unorthodox context in Denver, Colorado.
Special Report By Cristina Ramirez Doval
Founder Megan Patterson has reaffirmed forest school models´ positive impact throughout her career.
Ever since she started her Master’s degree in Ecological Learning, she saw firsthand how this type of education was transforming different countries.
As a full-time teacher, she came to realize learning outside of a classroom is specifically important for young ones with different set of needs.
“I was teaching kids who needed to move, who needed way more than just sitting down at a desk listening to a lecture, and we didn’t have an institution that would allow for them to move freely while learning,” she said.
During this time, Patterson had a son, and as he got older, she realized he would benefit from attending a forest school.
With the knowledge she had acquired during her master’s and doctorate degrees -and with the experience she possessed as an educator – Patterson founded Worldmind Nature School in 2015.
After recruiting other fellow colleagues, the program initially focused on children in preschool and kindergarten.
Within four weeks, the pilot program had proven successful with the first group of students enrolled.
“I would get a handful of parents that told me there was a noticeable increase in their kids’ level of confidence”, she assured.
Patterson believes the program had a positive impact because her team incorporates social-emotional learning into their model.
Social-emotional learning is the process of developing self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.
According to Patterson, students need this foundation in every stage of learning, even at a college degree level because when students learn how to understand and regulate their emotions, they also learn how to be part of a community.
Once this occurs, the academics part becomes less of an obstacle.
Patterson also noted that “emotional development is beginning to get lost because we focus on academics; when I taught [in other schools], I realized that classes were isolated, students had to sit at desks, which are isolating”.
With social-emotional learning as the main teaching tool, Worldmind Nature has expanded from a small institution that only had a pre-school and kindergarten to a model that has implemented programs all the way up to the sixth grade.
Patterson believes that soon the school will continue to grow, adding a Middle School and a High School program, due to the Elementary school’s success.
“We’ve received students, fifth grade students, that came from other schools, and they didn’t thrive in other schools, because they were constantly judged, others gave them a hard time, and it’s because we work with emotional learning, that these students’ academic skills have skyrocketed”, she emphasized.
The program is open to all students, and the faculty is prepared to teach neurologically diverse children.
Worldmind was founded with the purpose of providing these students an environment where they can thrive, but the center was built with another purpose that is equally important.
Preservation is one of the main reasons for this forest school’s existence where students visit different grounds for three hours once a week and most classes are taught outside.
“There is a misunderstanding about what a forest school is” clarifying that “we use the forest to teach students about the area that surrounds them”, she explained.
The school’s structure and layout helped immensely during the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic which began in 2020 and still continues nowadays.
“We switched to outdoor classes a 100 per cent of the time, the pandemic didn’t affect us at all, we kept having in person learning”, Patterson said.
She added there were no reported COVID-19 cases in students, faculty members, or parents.
Patterson hopes that more schools in Colorado as well as other states start planning to adopt the nature school and social-emotional learning models.
“Everybody’s recognizing the benefits at a pre-school level, especially with students who face different learning challenges, such as children with ADHD and autism”, she said.
Learn more about the Worldmind Nature Immersion School here: https://worldmindnatureschool.com/
Photo Credit: Worldmind Nature School