Top: A representative from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction presents Cedarsong Nature School director Erin Kenny with the Green School Leadership Award with members of the school’s forest kindergarten class look on. Bottom: The award certificate. (Courtesy Photos)

Island’s forest kindergarten receives state award for leadership

Earlier this month, Erin Kenny, co-founder and director of Vashon’s Cedarsong Nature School, took some time out with the kids in the school’s forest kindergarten program to accept an award from a representative of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The honor, a Green School Leader: Pillar 2 award from the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools program, recognizes the program’s accomplishments in the area of the health and wellness of students and staff.

“It is quite an honor,” Kenny said. “We have a track record of being a leader in the field (of outdoor early education) and setting standards. I am really proud of what’s going on at the school.”

Now in its 11th year, the school that was started by the environmental educator/lawyer because she couldn’t find any pre-school programs for her son that offered enough “outside time” is now recognized globally for its pioneering efforts.

“We have teachers coming to us to train from all over the world,” Kenny noted, “including South Korea, Australia, China, Peru, the U.K. and this summer, Thailand and Turkey. They come to learn best practices and about how to set up this type of program. We are gaining international attention. It’s really exciting.”

So what’s all the fuss about? The school was the first forest kindergarten in the U.S. and is notable for its “commitment to total nature immersion and interest-led flow learning.” In other words, the children in the program (ages 3 to 6) spend every minute of their four-hour Cedarsong day outside, regardless of weather conditions, and there is no set curriculum. Kenny explained that learning comes from what nature offers at any moment and what the kids are interested in or curious about.

“They’re making observations about natural science every day,” she said, “and retaining because it’s hands-on. I document everything the kids are learning, as many people don’t understand how the kids can be learning when they seem to be ‘just playing.’ The parents are always astounded.”

Kenny, despite being diagnosed with cancer last year, continues her work to bring this type of education to the mainstream. She was a keynote speaker at a recent nature conference in Australia as well as at the International Forest Kindergarten conference in Seoul, Korea, two years ago. She is now on the national leadership council of the North American Environmental Education Association’s Natural Start committee; she founded the nonprofit American Forest Kindergarten Association and has contributed to and co-written books about nature preschools and forest kindergartens.

“I am so thankful for our great teachers and board of directors who have kept things going while I’ve been going through a lot,” Kenny said.

There are still some spots available in the 2017-18 Forest Kindergarten class at Cedarsong. See cedarsongnatureschool.org for more information.

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