A Glimpse Into Forest Preschool

A Glimpse Into Forest Preschool

This is a reprint of a post from the Primitive Pursuits blog by Kirsten Wise from 2015

In September I had a chance to visit the Ithaca Forest Preschool just as the school year began.

Spiders. Fires. And monsters making ice cream.

Stranger things have happened at the Ithaca Forest Preschool. In a classroom where the walls are made of hills and the forest canopy provides windows to endless possibilities, learning and imagination run rampant.

In January 2014, Primitive Pursuits founder Tim Drake and team member Melissa Blake decided to start a preschool-aged nature education program. Blake says she didn’t want to wait until her son was six to get involved in the wilderness experiences that Primitive Pursuits was providing. By that March, a pilot program was up and running one day a week. Today the program runs five days a week and in two locations.

This fall, on the first program day, some kids already knew the lay of the land, having returned from a previous season. Others were just getting acclimated to the space, taking advice from the returners on how to create paint from sedimentary rocks and charcoal. When the time came to head down the trail, some chose a stony path along a creek, while others climbed over a log that spanned the leafy forest floor. A few asked mentors Melissa and Sean for help, or just saved the challenge for another day.

Later, they headed back to the creek to collect water for an activity. But once a toad was spotted, the task was all but forgotten to explore the differences between frogs and toads.

“There’s so much required of them,” Blake says as the children carry steel pots and rocks. Not only is it their first time without their parents, but for some, there is also the adjustment of being outside for hours at a time. However, as Blake has seen over the years, no matter the different exposure they have coming in, it’s evident that “young children naturally really want to be outside.”

In another area, a small tree had fallen across a tree trunk lying on the ground. Because of this, it could bounce. A boy belly-scooted along the tree and invited an instructor to come, too. They were going to “the ice cream store.” It was like Max’s imaginings in Where the Wild Things Are, but in reverse. Instead of the posts of Max’s bed turning into trees, the trunk began to morph into something industrial. Note to adult: regardless of where a child is, there is always another world to be found.

These preschoolers may not understand how unique their forest classroom is—however, it is evident that their skill-sets and level of comfort with nature surpasses many who are much older. Blake recalls a snowy spring break when there was a week-long program for teenagers near by. At first, many of the young adults seemed timid with their surroundings and uncomfortable in their lack of proper clothing. The youngsters, however, were embracing the cold and playing in the deep snow, bundled well in the lessons of winter preparedness.

At one point on Friday, one boy lingered back from the group and picked up a branch, thin and two feet long with a dangling limb.

“It’s a monster!” He whispered.

“Oh, no!” I gasped.

Quickly, he had to tell me about one of his favorite animals.

“I like bats,” he said, “because they eat frogs and mosquitos!”

I asked if he had ever seen a bat. He said no, but he knew they stayed together, “Like 1300 of them! In a big circle!”

I considered what a wild thought this was, for both of us.

A steep hill with a giant tree trunk providing a railing seemed to be the largest attraction of this forest classroom. A group of four kids began to climb, with a mentor following them. Within minutes, another boy notices them and races toward them, until he abruptly stops at the foot of the hill. He needs to make sure an instructor is there to watch him. Once he gets the okay, he speeds up the hill until he reaches the tricky part—where the mound becomes steep and the tree trunk is out of reach. There, he joins the other kids whose steps are becoming more deliberate, more thought-out. It takes each child a good three minutes to reach the top, listening to suggestions from their mentors and not getting upset when they fall. Some announce their delight before sliding back down.

But most are quiet, only giving you a smile that asks you to believe what they just did, because they barely believe it themselves.

At the end of each day, the kids have lots to tell. Genna Knight says when she picked up her son Rowan from class, “he was smiling and chatty and told stories the whole way home about his morning. He called both sets of grandparents and told them all about it.” When asked how many days he wanted to attend Forest Preschool, he replied, “Eight days a week!”

Winter Dressing Dos and Don’ts

Winter Dressing Dos and Don’ts

The arrival of winter weather has some people wondering… 


“What can I do to make sure my child can be comfortable playing outside in the wind, cold, snow, and rain?”

Primitive Pursuits has been taking youth out in winter for over a decade, and at Ithaca Forest Preschool, we take preschoolers outside 5 mornings a week, year-round. So we’ve learned a few things about dressing kids for winter, and came up with these top 5 Dos and Don’ts:


  • dress in layers
  • focus on staying dry, both from the outside (snow and rain) and the inside (sweat, pee).
  • base the amount of insulation on temperature AND the amount of physical activity you expect.
  • pay special attention to hands and feet: wear warm, waterproof mittens, thick socks, warm boots. Make sure boots start out dry inside!
  • wear a comfortable, warm hat with good coverage. Soft fleece tends to get better compliance than rough wool. Consider scarf/neck gaiter.


  • wear cotton—it absorbs moisture and conducts heat away from the body!
  • wear mittens or boots that allow snow in.
  • wear fleece or flannel on the outside where they can be “snow velcro”.
  • wear plastic or rubber boots that have no insulation—they aren’t warm enough and they trap moisture inside.
  • wear cotton socks!

Stay warm and we will see you in the woods!

Book Review: Balanced and Barefoot

Book Review: Balanced and Barefoot

How have children’s lives changed in the last 30 years? According to author and Occupational Therapist Angela Hanscom, children’s lives today are much more structured and busier than when she–or I–was a kid. Kids now often have an extracurricular activity or sport every day of the week, plus homework beginning in kindergarten in some districts. We’re all aware of the “screen time” issue; regardless of how you feel about the impacts of up to 11 hours a day (for the average American teenager) of computer, video game, and cell phone time, one thing that’s for sure is that that is time our children aren’t outside climbing trees and engaging in imaginative play.

Add to this the fact that recess is shrinking and becoming more structured (one school she mentions in her blog has instituted mandatory lap-walking around the track at recess time to fight obesity); children today spend much less time in outdoor free play than they did in the 70’s or 80’s.

Parents are being told that the modern world is a scary place, and that they should be fearful of allowing their kids to do many of the things they themselves grew up doing. This is in spite of the fact that, statistically, we live in a safer society now than we did then. On top of that, the society is more risk-averse. So even when they have the time for it, children are often disallowed from playing outdoors, alone or with neighbors; riding their bikes to school or around the neighborhood alone; climbing trees; and many of the other outdoor activities you and I grew up with.
Many of these points were made in Richard Louv’s seminal work, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. What’s different here is that Hanscom examines how these changes are impacting our children’s bodies, brains, and sensory systems, from the perspective of someone with a master’s in occupational therapy. She does a really nice job of presenting well-researched and referenced information about how free play in nature positively impacts every system in the body. She makes the case that “nature is therapeutic” and that nature play can prevent and treat many of the issues that her pediatric OT clients present with.

Did you know that, statistically, American children’s bones are getting more brittle? Hanscom relates this to a lack of weight-bearing exercise in early childhood. Remember the “bent arm hang”? Children today perform, on average, worse on the same national physical strength and agility tests we took in school. Clearly they are not getting enough of the kinds of physical activity we had. Increasing numbers of children are presenting with sensory development and sensory integration issues. Hanscom compares the state-of-the-art OT classroom with a natural environment and finds the classroom comparatively lacking in the right kinds of sensory stimuli.

She notes that a common treatment for certain types of auditory processing issues is to listen to pre-recorded birdsong; she maintains that listening to real birdsong, outdoors in a 360 degree environment, is far superior.

And she examines what’s wrong with modern playgrounds, both in terms of the types of physical and sensory stimulation they provide and the lack of opportunities for healthy risk taking.

Hanscom also points out that, while organized sports have many benefits, they cannot replace outdoor free play. One of the main arguments she makes in the book is that stimulation of the vestibular (inner ear, or balance) system is essential for optimal brain development; lack of stimulation can cause myriad problems from poor balance and coordination to difficulty focusing and lack of emotional regulation. Kids intuitively want to stimulate this system; this is why they seek out spinning, tumbling, swinging, and upside-down activities. Most organized sports and modern recess activities do not provide adequate vestibular stimulation. Swings have gotten shorter and merry-go-rounds have been deemed too risky for school playgrounds. In some places, kids are even being prevented from spinning around for fear that they will fall and hurt themselves.
In addition to sounding an alarm about children’s shrinking access to free play outdoors, Hanscom includes many ideas for how to help the children in your life reap specific benefits from nature play. The book is highly readable and well-organized. It’s aimed mostly at parents but anyone who works with children would benefit from reading this book. Most of all, the children will benefit!
Weeks 3 & 4 with the Chickadees

Weeks 3 & 4 with the Chickadees

Hi Chickadee-dee-dees! 
Each day before walking into camp, the children stop at the top of the bridge leading to Trillium Camp and make observations about what has changed. With each passing week, we’ve noticed more and more leaves starting to change color and fall to the ground. We’ve noticed that we’re wearing more layers in the mornings — jackets, sweaters, hats, sometimes even mittens! And the animals have been so busy! We’ve seen chipmunks with stuffed cheeks and heard squirrels rustling through the fallen leaves. 
Chickadees stopped at the top of the bridge leading to Trillium Camp. 
Like the animals, we’ve been pretty busy too! Maddy, Hannah, and Sarah finished telling the Peace Superhero stories. The Chickadees have now met Fine Words Fox, Peaceful Porcupine, Unity Unicorn, Feel Better Butterfly and Shadowtail, a giant gray squirrel who helps the Peace Superheroes travel through the forest. The Peace Stones (shown below) live in a bag on a backpack hook in Trillium Camp and we encourage the children to use them whenever they need guidance from these forest friends.

Meet the Peace Superheroes! Feel Better Butterfly, Fine Words Fox, Peaceful Porcupine and Unity Unicorn (top to bottom).

Speaking of forest friends, remember those beautiful leaves the Nuthatches gifted us during week 2 of preschool? The Chickadees made a fire, melted beeswax in a pot and carefully dipped the leaves into the melted wax. Each child got to pick out several leaves to dip in the wax. Some picked out heart-shaped leaves, others chose ones with “teeth.” They left the leaves to dry and will be using them to make something to give to the Nuthatches in return! What do you think the Chickadees are going to make with the waxed leaves?

The Chickadees warming their hands around one of their first fires! The children learned about different sized firewood (“wispies, pencils and markers”) and how to be safe around fire. They did a great job!

The children stopped for a ride on the Horsey Log on their way to collect firewood.

Our mystery bag has held some exciting mysteries over the past two weeks! During Opening Circle, the mystery bag was passed around. Each child felt the outside of the bag, described what it felt like and gave a guess as to what they think it could be. “Bumpy,” “hard,” “a stick,” were some of the things said as the mystery bag was passed around the circle. After a loud drumroll the bag was opened and inside was a plant with small, golden flowers — “goldenrod!” some of the children exclaimed upon seeing it. And it was indeed goldenrod! The Chickadees went on a search for goldenrod and found some growing at the edge of the front field. They filled their baskets with the flowers and headed down to Trillium Camp where they made a fire and filled a pot with water. Next they put in goldenrod, purple aster flowers and white hand towels. The children made predictions about what color the hand towels were going to change to. After some stirring, the pot was placed on the fire where it started to bubble and turn yellow!

Sarah and a Chickadee stirring a pot filled with water, white hand towels, goldenrod and purple aster flowers. The children learned that goldenrod and purple aster flowers are in the same family (the Aster Family, Asteraceae).

Next week the Chickadees will use another plant to add purple to their hand towels — stay tuned to find out what it is! We’d like to leave you with this sweet moment of some Chickadees walking back up the path towards the red oak tree at the end of the day holding hands using a “friendship stick.”

Thank you for reading — we love sharing the adventures of preschool with you!

Jumping in puddles,
Sarah, Maddy & Hannah

Week 3 Nuthatch Recap

Week 3 Nuthatch Recap

Hello Nuthatch Families!

The fire in the sun
Makes the fire in the trees
Makes the fire that we light tonight!

The fire in the sun
Makes the fire in the trees
Makes the fire that we light tonight!

Fire, fire burning brightly
Shield us with your light.

The fire in the sun
Makes the fire in the trees
Makes the fire that we light tonight!

The fire in the sun
Makes the fire in the trees
Makes the fire that we light tonight!

In our third week, the Nuthatches spent a lot of time thinking about changes and fire! The crisp air and our first (much needed) rainy day, made us think of the warmth cozy fires bring us. Here are some highlights so you can connect with all the joy we’re finding in our new forest home together!

During our second full week at preschool, the busy-building Nuthatches spent time “getting ready” for the colder weather. We transformed the shelter in our Ash Grove home to a place we can retreat to when we want to be cozy. Our special guest, Sean, helped us get the roof ready by dragging huge logs over to where the roof would go, and the Nuthatches got to use a real saw to cut off one of the logs that was too long. That was exciting!

After we made the shelter ready, the next day we installed the roof. Now we have a place to keep fire-making supplies and ourselves dry on wet days!

Now that our roof was finished, it was time to get the fire ready. We collected lots of materials from our bountiful Ash Grove. Special Guest, Sean, helped us learn about “wispies” and “tinder” small, dry fire-making supplies for the bottom of our fire. Since the branches were wet from the delicious rain, Sean shaved off the “raincoat bark” and the pine shavings underneath were nice and dry to help our fire grow. Once those were in place, we were ready to add “pencil sticks” and “marker sticks” to help feed our fire. Now that the fire was built and ready, we needed the “spark” that would bring the fire. 

Sean told the Nuthatches a story about how fire came to humans. The animals wanted to help humans survive as the world became colder. So the Raven flew up to the sun and took a small coal. We played the “Fire in the Sun” game to “catch” the coal from “The Raven” so we finally had a spark for our fire. 

We talked about all the wonderful things fire brings to our lives: warmth, light, cooking food, drying, and even signally, like with all the smoke our fire created. We had fun being able to notice the wind’s direction change by watching the smoke move back and forth. 

Once our fire was burning, Sean used a “fire pencil” to start to “write” ASH GROVE on a sign to welcome friends into our special nest. We will add more letters to our sign as we build fires on the days to come. 

This week, two Nuthatches brought in Mysteries for the Mystery Box. It took us lots of guessing and questions, but we finally discovered one was a beautiful piece of blue sea glass found in Cayuga Lake, and one was a gorgeous yellow, white & gray Northern Flicker feather found at Monkey Run. We can’t wait to see what new Mysteries we’ll find in the Mystery Box next week!

Last but not least, the Nuthatches had a new adventure on the last day of the week… We set off to “Meet the Creek.” We made some predictions about what we might find at the Creek: A fish? Fossils?  An alligator? Would there be water? 

We found lots of fossils, we collected “wispies” from the honeysuckle bush for future fires, we saw a snake, and we made a group sculpture… but no water. So, we need to wish for more rainy days! The Nuthatches are ready!

Thank you so much for reading, and for your patience awaiting the last several recaps!

Sparks, flames, and rainy wishes for warmth and welcoming chilly days,

Elisabeth and Mira

Office Location:
Cornell Cooperative Extension, 615 Willow Ave., Ithaca, NY 14850
607-272-2292 | email Us

Preschool Location:
4-H Acres, 418 Lower Creek Rd., Ithaca, NY 14850

Ithaca Forest Preschool is a nature immersion program for children ages 3-5. Our program is run in cooperation with Primitive Pursuits, a project of Cornell Cooperative Extension.