Mary Russell, who taught science at Carbondale Middle School from 2007 to 2011, is now living in Rapallo, Italy, and spends all day outdoors teaching eight children from ages 3-5.
“A forest preschool is a school that’s focused in the outdoors,” Russell said. “It’s about connecting children to nature and spending as much time of their school day outdoors as possible. To me, the biggest advantage is helping children develop social skills and confidence.”
Forest preschools have been growing in popularity since their beginning in Switzerland and Germany in the 1950s — especially in Europe, but the United States is catching onto the trend as well. In fact, Carbondale’s Waldkinder Preschool employs some of the methods of forest preschools by splitting children’s days between a classroom and the outdoors.
Russell stumbled upon the opportunity to teach at Il Pippi Esucazione Animalzione, a school started by Vittoria Brioschi, on a Facebook group called Forest Kindergarten Teacher Network.
“Vittoria wrote on the page saying, ‘I need an English-speaking teacher that believes wholeheartedly, 100 percent in the forest preschool,’ and I was like, ‘That’s me,’” Russell said. “So that was at the beginning of December 2015. We were emailing back and forth for two or three months.”
Moving to Italy was tempting, but for Mary it wasn’t an immediate decision.
“There’s a book club in Carbondale that read Brené Brown’s book, ‘Daring Greatly,’ and I talked to one of the women from the book club, and I told them about this opportunity, and I’m like, ‘Should I do it?’” Russell said. “And they said, ‘Mary, absolutely.’ So that really spurred me on. And reading the book and being part of that book club, it all came together.”
Russell moved to Rapallo last month and started teaching right away. She said she can already see a difference in her kids’ confidence levels.
“What it develops, being outdoors, is the social interaction between children,” she said in an interview via Skype. “It’s completely different outside a classroom. You climb trees, you jump over rocks, you climb boulders, you throw rocks into the river.
“We just did this yesterday with kids,” she continued. “They are 3, 4 and 5 years old walking down a trail. Some kids are crawling on their hands and knees, and they should be, based on my experience, able to walk down with confidence. The first time they went down yesterday, some were very scared, and it was a simple path that you and I would walk down, and any of my kids from Waldkinder, they would be running it.
“These kids, because they don’t spend much time outdoors climbing around and getting dirty, were very timid and frightened. When they came back up the hill, I could already see them holding themselves with a little bit more confidence and strength. So this is what it does: the self-confidence, the social interaction, the physical and mental health.”
Russell said the forest preschool method also teaches children how to distinguish a risk from a hazard. Taking risks, she said, still allows the kids to be in control of their safety. Walking across a wooden beam that’s 1 foot off the ground is a risk. Hazards, on the other hand, should be avoided. Walking out in front of a car is a hazard, not a risk. By keeping children outside all day with adult supervision (in Russell’s case, there is one adult for every five children), the kids are able to test risky things out and become more prepared for the real world at an early age.
Aside from spending all day outside, another way Brioschi’s school stands out from others in Italy is that it’s bilingual.
“I would like only English teachers; I don’t want any more Italians,” Brioschi said, explaining that she wants her kids to learn English, but not with a textbook.
Russell said she’s teaching the kids English by speaking it all day, and they’re teaching her Italian, too.
“I learned to count to 10 from one of the 5-year-olds just last week,” she said. “And she’s been correcting my accent. I practiced for three days, from Friday to Monday, to show her that I could roll my tongue.”
Russell may have had reservations at first, but now that she’s spent time with her students, she’s more excited than ever to be a part of this growing method in education.
“There are books written about it; there are videos on it,” she said. “This is becoming a movement all over the world.”