After stay-at-home restrictions started, staff at the Cumming Nature Center in Naples adapted its Forest School curriculum to engage students with the natural world remotely.
Since then, other Forest schools across the country reached out to the CNC for advice on how they can adapt their own curriculum to an online format.
“Forest School is different from most traditional schooling in that we are asking children to go outside and make discoveries, to wonder and to investigate,” said Angela Cannon-Crothers, environmental education coordinator. “We often ask them how they might find answers to their questions rather than answer questions for them, and we try to help them come up with their own questions about the natural world.”
Online Forest School created a platform for yearlong CNC Forest School students to connect with teachers and classmates, and retain some regular routines. It also invites more families to explore the Forest School educational model.
For those not enrolled in Forest School, CNC is offering weekly two-hour sessions for elementary students. Although the majority of students are from New York, students from Pennsylvania to Missouri have enrolled since creating the online offerings.
After seeing the success of the CNC Online Forest School, institutions reached out for advice, including Fiddleheads Forest School and Sky Valley Education Center in Washington state, Nature Connect in Alabama and North Carolina, Old Trail School in Ohio, and Fern & Feather Preschool in Massachusetts.
“To learn about the work that the CNC has been doing to maintain their connection with their children and to promote connection with nature has helped us find new ways to adapt our nature-based program to an online format,” said Ryan Ofsthun, director at Fern & Feather Preschool.
For CNC director Nathan Hayes, sharing advice about moving from in-person to remote, online learning can only benefit institutions that promote robust environmental education. By expanding Forest School to a wider online audience, nature centers everywhere can support families at home and get kids learning outside.
“Instead of exploring the landscape at the Cumming Nature Center, we’re engaging families where they are and inviting them to explore the magic of their local landscape,” Hayes said. “Going online has allowed us to maintain our existing Forest School community, and even expand it to include learners who may not have been able to participate in the past.”
In addition to engaging students with nature at home, Cannon-Crothers points out that Online Forest School offers a new challenge for Forest School instructors and a source of comfort for the students.
“Creating the online format has required all the instructors to be innovative and creative in new ways,” she said. “I have loved the challenge of it and I love seeing the kids. We all do. The kids seem so happy to see us, too, especially our regular yearlong Forest schoolers. We are part of their lives, and it’s important to connect meaningfully with them during this stressful and changing time.”
The CNC is part of the Rochester Museum & Science Center. Visit rmsc.org for information.