In this inaugural blog post I want to share a bit about the origin of Athens Forest Kindergarten. My oldest child was almost 3 years old when I had to face the fact that my usual repertoire of peaceful storytimes, simple crafts, household activities, and the occasional park visit wasn’t fully meeting his needs anymore. His insatiable desire for social connection with peers, his physicality, and his desire for challenge and risk were more than I could handle...or at least more than I could handle with grace while caring for my infant! My attempts at more frequent playdates or longer playground stays weren’t cutting it. I had worked as an educator for years, studied developmental psychology, and written my dissertation on self-regulation! But my academic knowledge of social-emotional learning, self-regulation, and developmentally-appropriate education was being put to a test in the form of a small, spunky human. I could see that my son craved deeper connections with his environment, more authentic challenges, and an intimacy with his peers that our daily household rhythm wasn’t making space for.
At the same time, a conversation about the need for more preschools with progressive educational models had been brewing (“blooming” you could say!) on a Facebook group for local parents. As synchronicity would have it, these conversations coincided with dreamy fascination in my social circle about nature-based preschools, forest kindergartens, and unstructured education in general. I realized quickly that my background in education and nonprofit organizations were about to unite in a way that I had never previously imagined. I was going to start a school!
I researched and sat with the thought for a while and then on that very same Facebook group I made a public commitment to start what would become Athens Forest Kindergarten. I knew it would be a cooperative preschool, held outdoors, that prioritized holistic, social-emotional development and ALL children’s right to play, and I knew I couldn’t do it alone. I gathered a team of experts to co-create this dream with. I studied with Dr. Jean Lomino, founder of Chattanooga’s first forest kindergarten, Wauhatchie School. I started a forest playgroup as my own research lab and training ground. And I spent a lot of time reflecting on what it meant to raise a child in the era of undeniable climate change. I came to believe that our school needed to be formed as an offering to the community. We needed to have a commitment not just to child-led education but to giving the community ownership of the programs and inviting them to grow with us as we commit to social justice through education. AFK’s co-op structure, community playgroups, and outreach events sends the message that our relationships with each other and our relationships with nature can and should flourish in tandem.
In those early stages of the project when I was forming relationships with those that would help bring this vision to life, I knew we needed a founding team with a scholarly orientation toward early childhood. As a researcher, I had turned to the academic journals early on and discovered that, much like my work integrating mindfulness practices into the PK-12 setting, the research on forest kindergartens is in its infancy. One of the things we are proudest of at AFK is having faculty, staff, and a hard-working Board of Directors who are excited about questioning, challenging, learning, revising, experimenting, reflecting, and documenting the growth of our skills right along with the growth of the children in our care. I can’t wait to share our goals for research and community collaborations and highlight each of our founding team members in upcoming posts. But for now, be sure to read more about what drives us and check out the details of our 3-6 year old forest kindergarten that starts in September!