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An Education Grounded in Literal Dirt

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A typical morning at ONE Forest School might begin with a yoga session followed by a morning snack. After a trek to the outdoor classroom, the lead teacher gauges her students’ energy levels and allows them to direct the day’s learning activities.

ONE Forest School, a private nonprofit school located in Bedford County, is conducted completely outdoors. It’s an academically accredited and internationally recognized Forest School. Forest Schools, which started in Scandinavia and have been around since the 1950s, utilize the outdoors — such as woods and water sources — to build independence and self-esteem for all its participants. Catherine Eubank, the school director and a certified Virginia Master Naturalist, said the school’s mission is to teach emotional intelligence and mindfulness through nature-connectedness. “It’s really all about getting kids into nature,” she said. Eubank added that Forest Schools teach children how to manage emotions; they build integrity, self-esteem, tenacity and grit. Students are allowed to learn how to fail.

The school offers enrollment for preschool through eighth grade. Though facilitated by adults, the school is child-centered and child-focused with its learning approach. There are no desks, walls or textbooks; the students learn through play. “They are working and learning at the same time,” Eubank said. The educational activities at One Forest School are dictated by what the student wants to learn. Eubank explained that at ONE Forest School they are mindful of their students so that they can be mindful in nature.

Danielle Bird, a ONE Forest School parent, the secretary of the board of trustees and the school's physician advisor, said that children in this environment learn not only to develop relationships with other children of different ages, but they also develop self-confidence and skills far beyond any traditional schooling. “There is excellent adult supervision, so I’ve never worried about the safety of my children. Yet, they are encouraged to test boundaries and go out on the proverbial limb," she said. "The courage they find to try different activities grows weekly. And the respect they learn not only for people but for all things nature is beyond amazing.” Bird added that the students learn to work together as team members, no matter the age difference, on a variety of projects.

Janelle Hefler, the director of education, has degrees in both education and special education. Heidi Sutherland, vice-chairwoman of the board of trustees, is a 20-year teaching veteran. They both developed the curriculum for ONE Forest School. It is a project-based STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, art and math) curriculum that supports the whole learner and fosters a sense of community and belonging. The overall learning focus of the primary grades is patriotism with a goal to facilitate what it means to be patriotic through the study of early American history. Using the Virginia Standards of Learning, each month has an emphasis. For instance, one of February’s themes is African American history. Projects for the month included building an underground railroad, creating code quilts and using compasses that the students made themselves to navigate the railroad. Eubank said this type of hands-on learning is perfect for students who struggle with the ability to focus.

The school currently has five students enrolled, and 12 pre-enrolled for the next school year. It follows a four nine weeks and two semester model that corresponds with the Bedford County Public Schools calendar. As enrollment continues to increase, ONE Forest School will use the typical Forest School student teacher ratio of no more than five or six students per teacher. While the school does charge a tuition fee to attend, scholarships are available.

Before-and-after school care and summer camp

ONE Forest School also offers before-and-after school care, as well as a summer camp program. In fact, those programs were how ONE Forest School got its start. Prior to COVID-19, it operated under the traditional Forest School model with only a preschool, summer camp and before-and-after school care. When other schools were shutting down during COVID-19, One Forest School was able to stay open because it was considered a daycare and deemed essential. Because ONE Forest School operates entirely outdoors, masks were not required (except for during drop-off and pick-up times). Mandatory handwashing stations were installed and temperature checks were done every day during the pandemic. In August of 2020, when Bedford County Public Schools did not open, Eubank and the ONE Forest School board of trustees made the decision to hire two teachers and offer enrollment for kindergarten through eighth grade.

ONE Forest school enrollment rates will double for the summer months when the summer camp program is offered. The camp runs from May 31 through August 5 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The program offers both full-time and part-time enrollment options. Each week has a different focus such as: mammalogy, ornithology, herpetology, dendrology, geology, botany and bees. Guest speakers are invited to discuss each week’s theme with the campers. Last summer, the camp hosted a certified master arborist who taught the campers about trees, a herpetologist who brought snakes, lizards and turtles and two entomologists from the Virginia Museum of Natural History visited during insect week with their collection of bugs and bug catching tools. “We strive for a very interactive and engaging summer for the children,” Eubank said. Campers build structures, create crafts from nature and experience storytelling from the comfort of a hammock.

Forest Theatre

The Forest Theatre is a popular summer camp activity. Every Friday, the campers put on a 10 minute play at the end of the day. Leading up to Friday, about 30 minutes is spent each day working on that week’s play. Every camper must be involved in some way — whether it is writing the script, directing or building the props. Each week has a theme which focuses on a topic that campers might find difficult to discuss in another medium. Issues like bullying, cheating or lying are addressed. Eubank explained that the Forest Theatre teaches children how to handle uncomfortable situations through comedy. “They are learning to find their voice,” she said.

Parents are invited to watch the performances. Afterward, the campers start a campfire using the flint and steel friction method they’ve learned at camp. Once the fire gets going, parents and campers alike end the week by making and eating s’mores.

Bird said that through ONE Forest School young children are learning in a fun and diverse environment. “There is minimal to no technology out in the woods. The stimulation to be creative and problem-solve with your mind and your hands is teaching life skills that will no doubt be a huge benefit down the road," she said. 

Forest School for Adults 

And ONE Forest School is not only for children. Adults can also benefit from nature-connectedness and play. Forest School for Adults offers classes and play sessions every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. with rates for singles, couples and special rates for groups. Classes include campfire and nature crafting, tree and plant identification, whittling circles, water and mud play. After class, adults can engage in games such as tag, hide-and-seek and mud pit tug of war.

Escape the Forest

ONE Forest School recently opened Virginia’s first outdoor escape room aptly titled: Escape the Forest. Adventurers (ages 7 to 107 — says a flyer promoting the game) can choose from a menu of 10 escape options and beginner, intermediate or advanced skill levels. Participants have 90 minutes to solve their chosen puzzle and escape the forest. One hundred percent of the proceeds from Escape the Forest goes to the scholarship fund for ONE Forest School. Time slots for both the Forest School for Adults and Escape the Forest must be booked in advance through the ONE Forest School website.

The future

Along with its current offerings, ONE Forest School is excited and hopeful for its future. There is a treehouse that needs finishing and a connective bridge that spans two creeks needs to be built. Eubank said that the school is always looking for money to purchase more land so that ONE Forest School can move further into nature. The existing private nature preserve on which the school is currently housed would become open to the public with environmental educators and interpreters on-hand to engage with visitors.

But at its heart, ONE Forest School remains devoted to its children. “We’re here for the children,” Eubank said. “We’re putting in the foundation for this beautiful thing.”

ONE Forest School accepts donations for scholarships, program and project funding, arts, crafts and building supplies, as well as physical help with gardening, landscaping and building. Visit www.oneforestschool.org for more information.

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