Erica Hermsen, Founder and Executive Director of EverWild Forest School
Erica Hermsen, Founder/Executive Director of EverWild Forest School, reads to a class of
students in their outdoor classroom.
Last month, thousands of kindergarteners graduated from classrooms around the state; however, only a few of those children waved goodbye to trees and ospreys instead of desks and whiteboards. These were the students who spent their year learning among the wild spaces along the Boise River, in a classroom without walls. Between September 2022 and May 2023, eight children spent a total of 1,080 hours outside, rain or shine. A certified teacher and experienced assistant facilitated a customized and comprehensive place-based curriculum that leveraged the natural and cultural surroundings to teach concepts in math, science, language arts, and social studies. Unstructured free play was incorporated
into a large part of each day, allowing students to participate in guided risky play like climbing trees, balancing on logs, building forts, and wading in water. A certified literacy specialist worked with the students each week, providing one-on-one support for every early reader. Community engagement encompassed a major portion of the program, with monthly field trips and weekly visits from local experts in a variety of disciplines.
Place-based curriculum is combined with nature immersion to create a holistic learning
Known as Forest Kindergarten, the program was conducted through EverWild Forest School, a Treasure Valley-based educational nonprofit organization founded in 2019. For its first two years of operation, EverWild Forest School offered only partial day educational programs for children 18-months through 12-years of age. After demonstrating success of its 100% outdoor preschool and homeschool enrichment programs, EverWild Forest School made the leap to offer a full day outdoor kindergarten – the first of its kind in the state.
Despite the unconventional program, the eight students comprising the graduating class of the inaugural Forest Kindergarten were all assessed to be at or above grade-level standards at the end of the 2022-2023 School Year. It can be assumed that the students also benefited from the research that shows that outdoor learning improves mental and physical health, environmental stewardship, confidence, independence, and empathy. Throughout the year, the students consistently demonstrated skills in problem solving, emotional regulation, and resilience after learning how to brave a battery of elements including driving rain and freezing temperatures. Each child learned how to dress for the weather and build shelters to stay dry. When conditions were unsafe or too much to bear, the class would utilize an
insulated 20-foot enclosed and modified cargo trailer as their safe haven, utilizing the custom-built writing surfaces, mini library, science lab, and other educational materials.
Students spend nearly all day outside, rain or shine – or snow!
With the success of EverWild Forest School’s first full day outdoor kindergarten program, the
organization hopes to continue offering families an accessible and alternative option to conventional education that utilizes an evidence-backed approach to child development and learning. While most families pay monthly tuition for their child to attend EverWild Forest School’s high-quality programming, the organization offers financial assistance and a gear lending library for families in need. Eventually, EverWild Forest School hopes to gain enough funding to offer future Forest Kindergarten programs for free, so that all children in the region have the opportunity to be introduced to formal education in a developmentally supportive way that champions each child’s connection to nature, their community,
and to themselves.