Sally Anderson is transforming preschool age students into “treeschoolers” with a nature and place-based approach to learning with SOL Forest School.
In Spanish, sol means sun. But in New Mexico, where the Spanish-speaking population as well as daily sunshine is high, sol has another meaning. And we have Sally Anderson to thank for that. Her “forest school” for young children is called SOL. On a literal level that stands for Soulful Outdoor Learning. But on the most profound level, it stands for Sally’s Own Soul, which is what the school is to her.
“This feels even deeper to me. This feels to me like it’s literally my soul’s work that’s birthing through me,” she explains. “This work is the first work where I feel like it’s not only okay, but it’s almost imperative that I feel like spirit is working through me with this.”
Acknowledging the dire need to connect children with Mother Earth, Sally initially began integrating nature and place–based early learning while working as an administrator at the New Mexico School for the Deaf. She came across the concept of forest schools, which have been in operation for decades in Europe, during graduate school research. “There were beautiful images of children playing in a forest, and I was literally pulled into the screen,” she remembers.
From there, she was determined to make her dream a reality. As Sally wrote in an article for Natural Start Alliance, “The biggest initial challenge was in de-programming students from their highly-scheduled and highly-structured lives. We had to teach them to engage with the land and play freely again!”
The young students are known as “treeschoolers,” and they actually do climb trees. While the school does provide a daily rhythm and routine through typical preschool activities, the main emphasis of the curriculum is on unstructured, child-led learning and play. High-energy activities are balanced with mindful moments that include spending time in “sit spots” beneath the tree canopy, where treeschoolers use their senses to appreciate the beauty, peace, and intricacy of the natural world.
A forest school has a “specific pedagogical approach,” Sally says. “We don’t develop connection to the natural world unless we have that connection from a very young age, and so many young children do not get that anymore,” she adds. “It’s not like this concept is so radically new and different. It’s been in our history, but we have moved increasingly more and more away from it.”
With her encouraging demeanor, Sally “expresses and encourages wonder and wondering about the natural world. She invites—and listens to—the children's wonderings,” says colleague Ruth Ann Wilson. “Mostly, Sally helps children feel connected to the natural environment. The connections are physical through touching and smelling, digging and lifting, climbing and splashing. The connections engage the mind through experimenting, observing, and exploring. The connections are also emotional through joy and wonder.”
After four years, SOL has grown and offers four sessions a week. Enrollment is currently at capacity with a waitlist of potential treeschoolers.
“It’s this idea that we are not separate from nature, we are a part of nature, and Earth herself is a sentient being, and that Earth actually dreams through her people,” she articulates. “I really feel that Earth is dreaming through me and saying that we need some future stewards here.”
Sally aspires to provide nature and place-based early learning to many more treeschoolers. She actively partners with a local nonprofit and is exploring how to provide programming on a larger scale. SOL families are also encouraging Sally to open a K–5 school, so that their children can continue to learn alongside nature. To learn more about SOL, please visit solforestschool.com.
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