Q&A with Free Forest School founder Anna Sharratt
At Wonderkin, we believe nature play is a right, not a privilege. That's why one dollar from every box we sell goes to support organizations that promote accessibility to outdoor play and learning experiences, like Free Forest School, an organization that opens the door to nature play and child-led learning for thousands of children by empowering parents and caregivers to provide it themselves.
We had the opportunity to connect with Free Forest School founder Anna Sharratt, and loved hearing about the inspiration behind FFS and the incredible work they're doing to support nature play for all. Enjoy!
What is your favorite outdoor childhood memory?
Every summer, my family vacationed on the North Shore of Lake Superior in Northern Minnesota. The shore in that area is composed of solid rock -- small cliffs and bowls creating a fantastic natural playground. My brother and I spent hours exploring that shoreline, scrambling and climbing, playing games and naming landmarks. We rarely saw anyone else, and it felt to me like it was ours alone to explore and love.
What inspired you to found Free Forest School?
My kids, Miles and Ellen, inspired me to start the first chapter in Brooklyn in 2015. Being in nature has always been a part of my life, from my upbringing to my work as an experiential educator, and it was natural that I continued to play in nature as a parent. By 2015, I had spent enough time watching my kids learn and grow to realize that unstructured time in nature was the ideal learning environment. When I convened the first group, it was really just an effort to give my kids more social interaction in the types of spaces and experiences that already filled our days. The decision to found an organization came later, resulting from the momentum that built behind my simple ideas.
How is Free Forest School working to make outdoor play and learning more accessible?
I feel like I have to say that FFS is still very much in a start-up phase; our program has a strong grassroots story and we're still working on catching the organization up to the growth we've already experienced, just making the core program sustainable. That said, opening doors to nature play for underrepresented and under-resourced children and families is at the core of our mission and we are digging into that work in various ways. Our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee recently adopted a DEI Statement and is developing DEI benchmarks for the organization aimed at building diverse leadership on every level. After a long process analyzing the barriers children and families face to participating in FFS or a similar opportunity, we are launching a new outreach campaign this spring. We are pursuing strategic partnerships with organizations already serving people of color and people with special needs. And we're developing a scalable model for bringing FFS into public schools, in order to reach kids regardless of parent availability or interest. Finally, we are developing guidelines and training around diversity and inclusion, particularly related to inclusion of families with special needs and cultural inclusion, for our directors and facilitators.
Take a moment to brag about Free Forest School - what’s the one accomplishment that you’re most proud of?
The thing I am most proud of is the simple power of our model. In a way, we are not offering anything new -- no fancy classes, no Pinterest-worthy products. What we are doing is reorienting the perspective of adults to help them see the value of nature play -- illuminating resources they may already have at their fingertips, helping them learn to slow down and really see what is happening when children are free to play and create. And what I find most amazing is the generosity that comes from our community in return for those transformational experiences. People who have become engaged in FFS repeatedly say the experience has been life-changing, and many of them are ready to volunteer to do just about anything to help move our vision forward. In my wildest dreams, I never could have imagined such skilled, thoughtful people stepping up so generously behind a common cause. It's such a pleasure to be a part of a strong, dedicated, scrappy team that shares values so close to my heart.
What’s one pro tip you’d offer parents looking to spend more time outdoors with their children
Find community and do it together. While I think parenting in nature came naturally to me, it wasn't until I created FFS that it really became routinely integrated into our lifestyle. Having others to experiment with, laugh with, commiserate with, learn with... essential!!
Finish this sentence: "Spending time in nature makes me feel…”
Like myself. At some point in my years of leading wilderness trips, being in nature started to feel more normal or real to me than the rest of life. I don't get into the backcountry much anymore, but I've learned to find adventure and appreciate nature in small corners through the eyes of my children. I'm the best version of myself and the best parent I can be when I'm getting plenty of exercise outside
Free Forest School chapters meet on public land across the U.S. and in Canada, providing free opportunities for young children and their parents and caregivers to explore, play, and connect. You can find a chapter near you, or found your own!
For more information on Free Forest School visit freeforestschool.org