At Chicago area 'forest school,' nature is the classroom and children are explorers

ByJordan Arseneau via Localish logo
Friday, November 11, 2022
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Rachel Mikottis leads Free Haven Forest School, where learning is child-led and kids are outside in all weather.

MOKENA, Ill. -- At Free Haven Forest School, the sound of howling beckons students around the campfire to hear about their next learning activity: extracting honey from a bee hive.

"Why do you think we have to harvest the honey inside?" asked Rachel Mikottis, the school's founder.

"Because they can sting you," answered a student.

"So we're going to have to be very careful," said Mikottis.

Being inside is unusual at Free Haven. In the last year, the school has served over 300 students between the ages of 3 and 14 through outdoor programs that happen 12 months out of the year. Their motto at the school is "there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

"When nature is your classroom, you're never going to run out of things to learn about, to be curious about, or to ask questions about," said Mikottis. "When kids are outside they're less anxious, they're less depressed, and they can focus better."

Parent Audrey Klaue has two daughters, ages 6 and 4, who participate in programs at Free Haven.

"To see the transformation in my girls, to see how curious they are, and how excited they are to be outside," said Klaue. "They just have an opportunity to indulge in their creativity and be free to do so."

While younger students extracted honey, teacher Becky Sanders instructed older students in fire building, using ferro rods to create sparks on cotton balls and kindling. At Free Haven, students guide teachers to what they want to learn about, and in turn, teachers design a curriculum that covers all subjects centered around their interests.

"Forest school is curiosity and exploring and risk-taking," said Sanders. "Our classroom is our outdoor world."

Parent Katie Willis said her 5-year-old experienced a huge confidence boost participating in Free Haven Forest Schools Forest Explorers Program.

"Now she can't wait to go to school," said Willis. "Every day is a new adventure for her."

Mikottis first started teaching students outside to keep them safe during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"After teaching outside for one year, I decided I could never teach inside again," said Mikottis.

Because there were no other forest schools in Illinois, Mikottis decided to start her own. When Free Haven launched in 2021, it held programs at forest preserves. Now it meets at a single location in Mokena, Illinois equipped with a tree house, creek, chicken coop, and acres of woods for kids to explore.

Forest school as a concept started in Europe, but Mikottis is advocating for new legislation in Illinois and the rest of the U.S. to train teachers on how to make use of the outdoors to educate children.

"I hope in my lifetime we are able to change a lot of policy and make forest school accessible to all students including students in the public schools," said Mikottis. "Children today are expected to change the world but were not giving future generations an opportunity to have a relationship with nature and with the planet."

Mikottis said she wants to expand her programs to high school students and is soliciting donations to purchase more land and build a new facility. For more information on Free Haven Forest School, visit freehavenfs.com.