When Upstate educator Elizabeth Henderson returned to the U.S. after spending eight years overseas teaching in Vietnam, she was full of ideas. As a tutor, teacher and vice-principal at an international school in Da Nang, it was part of Henderson’s job to look for different ways to best serve the schoolchildren. Whether it was after-school programs, classroom curriculum or sports programs, Henderson looked at a lot of different ideas. One of them especially caught her attention, so strongly in fact that she held on to the idea when she came back home in 2015: Forest kindergarten.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like, Henderson says. “Kindergarten class in a forest.”
The first forest kindergarten program was created in Denmark in the 1950’s. The idea is a simple, but appealing one: Children are encouraged to play, explore and learn in a forest or natural environment, developing socialization and cooperation skills and senses of exploration and play as a way of learning about the world.
As Henderson sees it, the forest kindergarten concept works as a sort of antidote for the typical strict educational approach.
“There’s been a lot done with the idea of schools focusing on reading and writing and counting by the time they GET to kindergarten, when a lot of the research points out that at that point, these kids are really not ready for,” she says. “I don’t want to devalue the current structure of schools but would instead like to highlight the learning benefits of getting preschool students, meaning 3-6 year-olds outside and engaged with their natural world. The richness of the natural world stimulates their minds and cognitive growth as they observe, explore, and experiment through playing outside. Nature based education develops environmentally concerned citizens who will be the environmental stewards of the next generation.
Henderson discovered that there was a successful forest kindergarten program in North Carolina at the Asheville Forest School, and it encouraged her to create her own here in Greenville. Her program is called CAREGarden (with the “CARE” standing for Cultivating Awareness and Raising Empathy for Earth), and it’s designed to foster love for others and nature through outdoor activities.
But any new educational program is going to need support from the community at large, and that support starts with awareness. In order to get the word out about CAREGarden, Henderson and her husband, musician John Durham, have put together an event called “A Celebration Of Spring” at The Grove at Upcountry Provisions in Travelers Rest on Weds., March 20th.
At the event, children’s book author Jill Neimark will read her 2015 book “The Hugging Tree: A Story About Resilience,” Durham’s group the Local Green Family Band will play a kid-friendly selection of spring-inspired songs, and Henderson has created a slate of activities for children ages 3-6.
“There will be mini-lessons about plant parts and how they grow,” she says, “and we’ll be exploring the grounds of The Grove, including their Worm Farm, observing parts of plants, and planting seeds to take home, as well as doing some meditation and movement lessons.”
The ticket price for the event is $6, with proceeds going toward covering the venue fees, the author’s travel and accommodation, and supplies for the gardening activities. That admission price also allowed Henderson to invite 60 students and teachers from the local Head Start program at no charge.
“I wanted to make use of the unique outdoor spaces we have in Greenville and provide an educational opportunity for kids who might not be able to participate in things on the weekends or evenings,” she says. “The point of doing it in the morning is that the Head Start school students can attend.
Henderson says that her ultimate goal is to create a series of CAREGarden programs around the Upstate that mix literature, music and educational activities about the outdoors. “I’d love to be able to run these programs in different areas,” she says.
Durham sees a great deal of promise in his wife’s program, as well, and in the Local Green Family Band’s involvement.
“Her passion for education made me realize that we could do something together, and it allowed us to hope,” Durham says. “It would be nice to have a series of changing-of-season type concerts, and it’s going to be exciting to see what works and develop a template.”
What: Celebration Of Spring, featuring Jill Neimark and the Local Green Family Band
Where: The Grove at Upcountry Provisions, 6811 State Park Rd., Travelers Rest
When: Wednesday, March 20th, 9 a.m.
Tickets: $6, click here