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Local Spotlight: Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis

Imagine unplugging your family for a couple of hours every week to explore, play and learn in the woods at one of Indianapolis’ beautiful parks. 

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, with other like-minded families. The Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis does just that. Volunteer facilitators host free weekly meetups throughout the Indianapolis area, year-round, where children 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, “Free Forest School has grown from a small grassroots movement to a growing organization that supports more than 150 local groups in North America,” says founder Anna Sharratt. “I 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.”

The Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis is part of the global Free Forest School movement. Its aim is to “foster the next generation of environmental stewards, and 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.” 

 Who It’s For

Equity and inclusion are the cornerstones of the creation of the Free Forest School. Meetups are always free and any family can participate. Since the creation of the Indianapolis chapter, the group has expanded its meetups to include additional parks and days to serve the ever-increasing interest from the 250 local families engaged with the group. As a volunteer-run organization, the group is able to increase and change services depending upon the needs of participating and interested families. 

Where It Meets

Currently, the Indianapolis chapter meets six days a week at Cool Creek Park in Carmel, Holliday Park in Indianapolis, Flat Fork Creek Park in Fishers and Hague Road Nature Haven in Noblesville, and members are constantly scouting for new locations ideal for meetup events. 

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’d imagine. Facilitators and parents allow the children to direct the focus, speed, direction and 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 where the children can continue to play, explore, create and 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 who participate are not yet enrolled in school, so families use meetups as an introduction to learning environments. Others use the Free Forest School to supplement their child’s classroom experiences.

“Free Forest School has been a fantastic way for us to experience nature and meet new families,” says Rachel Bassey, who participates in Free Forest School with her son. “Going back to the same parks has let my son become more comfortable and test his boundaries in a safe and familiar environment. It’s a great break from our busy schedule to relax and play.”

While education and socialization may be a focus for caregivers, many of adults have discovered the value in both the online and in-person community created by the Free Forest School group.

“Our chapter is full of caregivers from all walks of life,” says Valerie Keinsley, a volunteer facilitator for Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis. Some work outside the home, some don’t. Some feed their kids all organic everything, some don’t. Some cloth diaper, some don’t. 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’t matter as much as 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.”

Free Forest School of Greater Indianapolis currently organizes its meetups through their Facebook group, and they are 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.

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