Stacey Gummey started the school five years ago and told TODAY's Sheinelle Jones that it has seen a surge in popularity over the past year. Case in point? There are only 12 spots, but there was a waitlist of over 40 children at one point.
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As many school districts consider how to safely reopen schools during the pandemic, alternative options like "forest kindergarten" classes have gotten a lot of attention. And for Gummey, the benefits of the experience far outweigh any inclement weather she and her students might encounter.
"Children are very resilient. We all know that everybody says that all the time. Here, we really realize they're resilient," she said. "But we have to start off warm. And we have to have the right gear."
Forest kindergartens started in the 1950s in Denmark and remain a popular trend across Europe. Nature preschools and kindergartens in the U.S. have tripled in the past three years. The experience gives young children the opportunity to spend more time outdoors like their parents once did, and kindergartener Alice Louick has been loving it.
The student began virtual kindergarten classes last fall but her mother Rebecca quickly discovered that remote learning came with its a set of unique challenges.
"She just wasn't getting the joy that I think she would have been getting in the classroom if we were able to do that," she said. "She just wants to be out in the world like so many little kids."
After hearing about Hickory Hill, Louick got on the waiting list and her daughter started classes in November. She realized she'd made the right decision after seeing Alice's smile on the first day.
"I texted Stacey a picture of her face the second she got in the car, and I said 'I have not seen this face since March.' She's dirty, she's happy. And it still makes me just feel such deep gratitude for the fact that she has it back and has had it since," she said.
Amazingly, the school has not had any COVID-19 cases and the students wear masks during the day. Kids are encouraged to follow their interests as they explore the great outdoors.
"That's a really key component of teaching style, I think, and also interest-based. So this is not teacher-led, this is child-led," Gummey said.
Like many teachers, Gummey began to notice that kindergarten students were starting to learn skills like reading and writing that first graders typically cover in class. And that leaves little time for play, which can be equally important.
"I think reading and writing and all that comes very naturally to children, because it's fun to learn. However, we are working on life skills. These children are going to be resilient, and able to go into a school and communicate with adults wonderfully with other with their peers wonderfully, and learn to critical think."
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