Erin Kenny, an educator who received international acclaim for establishing Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten on Vashon, died on Friday, Oct. 19. She was 58 years old.
Her death, caused by ovarian cancer, occurred peacefully at her island home, said her sister, Molly Lannon Kenny.
At Erin Kenny’s preschool, founded with her friend Robin Rogers a decade ago in a forest near the heart of Vashon, students spend all their time outside, come rain or shine.
Kenny declared Cedarsong’s motto to be, “Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls,” and created a school with no lesson plans or formal structure. Instead, she encouraged her students to splash in mud puddles, climb trees and make art from rocks and leaves found on the forest floor.
She also showed children how to forage for edible plants, inviting them to munch on what she called “forest candy” — the buds of Douglas fir trees — and drink warming tea made from plant material, including Indian plum, tips of ferns and cedar bark. On hot days, salal leaves served as the children’s lollipops.
The innovative school garnered media attention from outlets including The Seattle Times, People magazine, ABC’s Nightline, Al Jazeera and the British television show Daybreak. News footage captured the tiny students, well bundled in rain gear, exuberantly exploring the forest.
A Vashon friend, Stewart Jay, called Kenny both “a force of nature and a force for nature.”
More than 400 children have attended Cedarsong since its inception. Kenny also wrote three books, trained hundreds of people in the school’s educational philosophy and practices, and traveled to several countries, extolling “The Cedarsong Way.”
Her final trips abroad were to South Korea in August, where she taught Catholic nuns how to implement forest kindergartens in their orphanages’ schools, and to Iceland weeks before her death, for a conference with her peers.
Tom Hobson, who teaches at the Woodland Park Cooperative School, published a tribute to Kenny after he returned from spending time with her in Iceland.
Her pedagogy and practices, he wrote, would “continue to spread like ripples from a boot stomped in the mud.”
Kenny was born on Aug. 3, 1960, in Newark, New Jersey, the first of seven children for her mother and father. Most of her childhood was divided between Montclair, New Jersey, and a lake house in Ontario, Canada, where her family summered.
Her biography on Cedarsong’s website recounts the influence of her mother, who encouraged unsupervised outdoor play, and once successfully organized all seven of her children to hold hands and block a road-building crew from taking down a huge old beech tree.
Kenny moved to the Northwest in 1980 to attend Evergreen State College, graduating with a degree in environmental education. In 1992, she received a law degree from the University of Washington.
She intended to work for a nonprofit such as the Sierra Club, but her mother, Sandy Kenny, recalled her daughter’s UW graduation ceremony as a possible portent to her lack of interest in being restricted to the airless confines of a law office.
“Erin was one of three law students who didn’t wear a cap and gown to the graduation,” Sandy said. “She wore a velvet patchwork suit and threw glitter as she walked across the stage.”
While Kenny studied and later practiced law, she filled her evenings with a passion for music, singing and playing bass in two indie rock bands, Bare Bones and Violet Ray. In the first band, she was joined by her youngest sister, Molly.
Kenny also escaped Seattle to indulge her love of nature, working as a summer caretaker at Goldmyer Hotsprings, run by a nonprofit organization in a wilderness area in the Cascade Mountains. Her seasonal work there expanded and lasted a decade. At Goldmyer, she embarked on a self-directed course of study to become an expert in the edible and medicinal properties of Northwest plants.
In 1998, Kenny moved to Vashon. By this time, she had shed her law career, and she embraced island life, teaching outdoor programs for both children and adults, and writing a memorable weekly newspaper column called “Northwest Herb Talk.”
She purchased 5 acres of native forest on the island in 2000, and the following year, she launched an immersive nature camp for girls, Camp Terra, on the land.
Kenny became the single mother of a son, Shanikai August Moon, in 2003. The next year, with her small son in tow, she began to lead an outdoor program at a local preschool, work that germinated the seeds of what was to become her greatest professional achievement — establishing her forest kindergarten on her land in 2008.
She is survived by her son Shanikai; her mother and father, Sandy and George Kenny; her siblings Michael Kenny, Thomas Kenny, Patricia Kenny Clauhs, Brendan Kenny; Molly Lannon Kenny and Timothy Kenny; her brother- and sisters-in-law Robert Clauhs, Carolina Barreat and Sasha Lannon Kenny, six nephews and eight nieces, and her aunt, Connie Curham, of Vashon. A celebration of Kenny’s life was held on Oct. 23 at Vashon Eagles.