WHITEFISH — At Foxtail Forskola, students aren't bound by walls and nature serves as the curriculum for learning and provides the tools for playing.
Foxtail Forskola (Swedish for preschool) uses the Scandinavian "forest school" concept, which is steeped in experiential learning that draws on the natural curiosity of children's developing minds and bodies.
The school day is spent outdoors engaged in hands-on activities, said Kayla Nickells, teacher and founder of Foxtail Forskola. Throughout the day, children build social, emotional, communication, math, science, art and outdoor skills through play, circle time, farm "chores" and story time.
"The natural world offers so many things to explore," Nickells told the Daily Inter Lake.
She discovered the benefits of learning outside years ago while living at a vineyard in Italy.
"The owners had two kids and one of them was preschool age. The mother invited us along to observe what preschool was like in another culture. It was a type of experiential learning I had never seen before. We ended up doing experiments on turning fermented grapes into wine. We picked grapes. Everything was sensory. The children went on a hike and I just noticed how calming it was for the kids. They were asking lots of questions and getting answers from things they were already engaged in. It was an amazing experience," she said.
When she returned to the United States Nickells began the transition from teaching indoors to outdoors and opened a forest school in Texas.
"Getting to transition from indoor environment to outdoor — it was extremely obvious to me the children just thrived in an environment where they were free to create and play," Nickells said. "I noticed major differences in gross motor skills and improvements in fine motor skills."
On a rainy fall day at EarthStar Farm in Whitefish, a gregarious group clad in coats, hats, boots and mittens frolicked around a pasture — running, falling, getting back up again and giggling. Teaching assistant Amy Kortko then led the group in a game of hide-and-go-seek and "red light, green light," while Nickells prepared for the day's adventures.
Soon, the preschoolers headed over to a small cabin where they sat in a row on the covered porch for "fika," or coffee break. In this instance, herbal tea serves as a substitute for the youngsters. Fika is a Swedish ritual where stories are swapped and laughs are shared, Nickells said.
Nickells went inside the cabin and brought out a Thermos of huckleberry tea. Uncapping the lid, tendrils of steam rose into the air. She asked student Bronson Carr to help her by handing out the mugs. She and Kortko used the moment to talk about manners — saying "please" and "thank you" and how to respond if they did not like the tea flavor.
One preschooler farther down the row eagerly held out his cup out while the tea was poured.
"Can I have some?" he asked.
"Remember, we talked about patience," Nickells gently reminded him.
Nickells asked the children about their dreams from the previous night.
"There were so many goofy monsters," Hendrix Richardson said expressively.
"Who was in your dream? Who was there that made you feel better?" Nickells wondered.
"Mom," Richardson replied.
When the dreams were told and the tea was gone the group was ready to visit a small pond. Kortko left the group to assist a parent dropping off her child who was having a tough time with the separation. At the pond, Nickells crouched down and picked up a rock. She inquired about its size and shape before encouraging the students to find other rocks.
Near the water's edge a variety of kitchen utensils are scattered about. Dubbed "Foxtail Bakery" by Nickells, this is "where the menu changes seasonally according to locally available mud textures and leaf litter."
The preschoolers tromped around the water, boots sloshing in the mud. Picking up a large spoon, one preschooler ladled the murky water into a muffin tin.
"I'm making chocolate cake," he said, focused intently on the work at hand.
When another preschooler vied for the same spoon, the moment turned into a teaching lesson about sharing and taking turns.
After a couple of boots got stuck in the mud, resulting in wet socks, the group headed back to the cabin to get a snack and change into dry socks before heading on a hike into the forest. The destination was a greenhouse where the children warmed up, fed chickens, ate lunch and had story time. On some days, the students count eggs, and some seasons, track the growth of chicks. Fall days at Foxtail Forskola have also covered tree climbs, treks through "dinosaur valley" and imaginary play in the "forest theater," according to Nickells. As the seasons change, so will the activities, but one thing will remain — Foxtail students will be learning in the great outdoors.