Imagine unplugging your family for a couple\u00a0of\u00a0hours every week to explore, play\u00a0and learn in the woods at one of\u00a0Indianapolis\u2019 beautiful parks.\u00a0 Beyond the obvious benefits of learning about nature, your child is gaining important large- and fine-motor skills, building confidence, learning social-emotional skills, developing self-awareness and self-esteem, and laying the building blocks for a life-long love of the environment. Now imagine doing this in all seasons, in all types of weather,\u00a0with other like-minded families.\u00a0The Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis\u00a0does just that. Volunteer\u00a0facilitators\u00a0host\u00a0free\u00a0weekly\u00a0meetups\u00a0throughout the Indianapolis area, year-round,\u00a0where\u00a0children from infancy to age 6 engage in STEM, literacy, music, sensory play and wilderness exploration, all while playing in the forest. How It Began Created in 2015, \u201cFree Forest School has grown from a small grassroots movement to a growing organization that supports more than 150 local groups in North America,\u201d\u00a0says\u00a0founder Anna Sharratt. \u201cI believe the popularity of Free Forest School speaks to a widespread desire to reconnect with nature, especially for parents raising the next generation. Free Forest School is about making time to let kids be kids, giving them freedom and autonomy to explore and grow.\u201d The Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis is part of the global Free Forest School movement.\u00a0Its aim is to \u201cfoster\u00a0the next generation of environmental stewards,\u00a0and open the door to nature play and emergent learning for thousands of children by empowering parents and caregivers to work together to provide it themselves.\u201d\u00a0 \u00a0Who It\u2019s For Equity and inclusion\u00a0are the\u00a0cornerstones of the creation of the Free Forest School.\u00a0Meetups are always free and any family can\u00a0participate. Since the creation of the Indianapolis chapter, the group has expanded\u00a0its meetups to include additional parks and days to serve\u00a0the ever-increasing interest from\u00a0the 250\u00a0local families\u00a0engaged with the group. As a volunteer-run organization,\u00a0the group is\u00a0able to increase and change services depending upon the needs of participating\u00a0and interested families.\u00a0 Where It Meets Currently,\u00a0the Indianapolis chapter meets six days a week at Cool Creek Park\u00a0in Carmel, Holliday Park in Indianapolis, Flat Fork Creek Park\u00a0in Fishers and\u00a0Hague Road\u00a0Nature Haven in Noblesville, and members are\u00a0constantly scouting for new locations ideal for meetup events.\u00a0 How It Works Meetups begin with a volunteer facilitator leading a quick safety\/trail talk while the children enjoy a shared snack. This is just one of the ways they build community among the children by asking all families to participate and showing the children how everyone contributes. After the trail talk, participants take a child-led hike to the basecamp. Child-led is exactly what you\u2019d imagine. Facilitators and parents allow the children to direct the focus, speed, direction\u00a0and intent of the hike. Some days, the hikes are long and meandering, while others are short and focused. The children demonstrate to the adults their interests and abilities. After the hike, participants return to basecamp, often a creek in warmer weather or open area\u00a0where the children can continue to play, explore, create\u00a0and socialize for the next hour. The meetup concludes with a circle time where a story (or several) is read, participants sit together and have the opportunity to share about their day. The core guiding principle of Free Forest School is child-led learning in the outdoors, so children not only shape their play time, but also circle time and the flow of conversation. Some children\u00a0who participate\u00a0are not yet enrolled in school,\u00a0so\u00a0families use meetups as an introduction to learning environments. Others use the Free Forest School to supplement their child\u2019s classroom experiences. \u201cFree Forest School has been a fantastic way for us to experience nature and meet new families,\u201d says\u00a0Rachel Bassey, who participates in Free Forest School with her son. \u201cGoing back to the same parks has let my son become more comfortable and test his boundaries in a safe\u00a0and familiar environment.\u00a0It\u2019s a great break from our busy schedule to relax and play.\u201d While education and socialization may be a focus for caregivers, many of\u00a0adults\u00a0have discovered the value in both the online and in-person community created by the Free Forest School group. \u201cOur chapter is full of caregivers from all walks of life,\u201d says\u00a0Valerie\u00a0Keinsley,\u00a0a volunteer facilitator for\u00a0Free Forest School\u00a0of Greater Indianapolis.\u00a0\u201cSome work outside the home, some don\u2019t. Some feed their kids all organic everything, some don\u2019t. Some cloth diaper, some don\u2019t. As with anytime a group of parents or caregivers gets together, the ideas and opinions vary across the board. But at Free Forest School, the differences don\u2019t matter as much\u00a0as the pull of what unites us: Getting our kids into nature and letting them explore the world around them, taking a step back and letting play develop uninterrupted.\u201d Free Forest School of\u00a0Greater\u00a0Indianapolis currently organizes its meetups through their Facebook group,\u00a0and\u00a0they\u00a0are always welcoming members who are excited about a love of outdoor learning...and maybe a little dirt, too! Find out more by joining their Facebook group.