Children returned to Thrive Forest Preschool, for a summer camp in July in preparation for a full re-opening of the school in August following its closure in the spring due to COVID-19.
“It’s awesome to have kids back in the classroom,” said Ryan Devlin, the school’s director.
In June, Thrive held a family camp, where one or two families would meet with a Thrive educator for a tailored camp experience 2 hours a day for five days a week visiting areas in Creasey Mahan Nature Preserve where Thrive is located.
“This really gave us an opportunity to educate parents as they observed how wonderful unstructured play is and why it’s so helpful for children’s development,” said Devlin. “And it gave us time to plan for children returning to Thrive.”
On July 6th, Thrive welcomed children back to the outdoor classrooms with two classes of 10-12 children in camp five days a week, which has served as additional preparation for a return to full school programming in August.
Devlin said interest in the forest school program has soared with Thrive enrollment for the new school year doubling from 30 to now 60 children, most of which are new to the program. With the additional children, Thrive now will hold two classes a day five days a week, with a cap of 15 hours of preschool programming. There is a maximum of 12 children in each class with two teachers.
“I would say about 20-25 percent of new families are those who are uncomfortable sending their kids back into traditional schools (because of COVID-19),” he said.
Devlin acknowledges that having the children at Thrive is not without risk. “Anytime you get kids together there is risk,” he said. “But with all the fresh air and masks for the teachers and individually packaged snacks, we believe the benefits outweigh the risks.”
“It’s just magic for the kids after four to five month of quarantine, with the isolation and fear,” he said. “Now they are back with their friends and they can play without their parents hovering.”
In addition to masks for teachers, Thrive has adopted several new safety measures, including reducing the number of shared objects (each child is assigned a shovel), increased sanitizing, stump circles six feet apart. Parents must be masked when dropping off their children.
“We’ve had to separate them (children) a little here and there, but it is not a totally distanced program,” said Devlin. “We are not taking temperatures and we are not separating everyone on hikes. But we are about 90 percent there and we believe (infection) is highly unlikely. We were really nervous before we started. But our fears have proven to be more in theory than in practice. Kids are doing their thing and in large part everyone is distanced and safe.”
Thrive Forest school is an all-weather program. Occasionally, however, because of threatening storms or frigid temperatures, the classes have been held inside the nature center at Creasey Mahan. If that happens during the pandemic, Devlin said with concern about ventilation and high touch surfaces inside the center, the school would likely close instead on those days.
Devlin said if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it may be that it forces school administrators to open their eyes out of necessity with more schools emerging from this with outdoor programs. “We may come out of this with schools all over the country valuing and building, if not full forest kindergartens, then heavily outdoor programs.”
“We don’t want a monopoly,” said Devlin. “I really hope that more programs will come out of this and that COVID motivates programs to do it.”