Outdoor preschool

GOSHEN, Ky. (WDRB) -- With the sun in the sky and mud on the trail, a group of three to five year olds hike into the woods at Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve.

Navigating bumpy terrain down a steep hill, they finally making it to their outdoor classroom. This is Thrive Forest School, Louisville's first and only all-outdoor pre-school.

"What we say is that every day is actually a beautiful day. There's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices," said school director Ryan Devlin.

Here, mother nature is their teacher. Stumps serve as tiny chairs and their backpacks hang neatly on a nearby tree. Everything else comes from their imagination and what they find in the woods.

"Getting muddy, jumping in puddles, digging up rocks, looking in streams, learning about the world around them," said Devlin.

It's part of the child lead, inquiry and play-based philosophy of the school. Forest pre-schools have been around for more than 50 years, mostly in Europe and progressive areas. But they're gaining traction in the United States.

"The reason it's so popular is because it works. What scientists have found is that children who are exposed to an outdoor setting at this age, three to five years old, are more compassionate, are more cooperative, they're more creative problem solvers," said Devlin.

He started the program after looking for a pre-school for his own son. When he couldn't find a forest program in Louisville, he created one.

"It was really clear that this was a great way for a child to spend their early years before being sat behind a desk," said Devlin.

For a few hours a week, the kids, along with two teachers head into the woods to explore.

"We're following what the children are interested in and that makes them love learning and that's what's going to serve them the most," said Devlin.

They will head inside if necessary. But Devlin says that's usually only with lightning, high winds, or when temperatures drop below 15 degrees. Otherwise, you'll find the students exploring.

"You have to have the right gear. Like, if it's cold you've got to have the layers, and they can't go in the creek unless they're layers up right," said teacher Donna Brown, who taught in Montessori programs for years, but was excited about heading outdoors with students. "Nature is such a great teacher."

Log bridges help develop kids' fine motor skills, and being outside also improves social skills.

"How to use their manners, how to speak to each other," she said.

While these kids won't necessarily be in the forest for their entire school career, Devlin says it sets them up for success later on when they're in a more traditional classroom.

"They're more self confident, they're more compassionate, they're more resilient, and they actually excel in academic school beyond children who begin in academic-focused programs," said Devlin.

For now, they're giving kids a chance to just be kids.

Thrive still has a few spots open for next fall. More information can be found on their website.

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