New ‘forest school’ brings a 100% outdoor learning environment to Beaufort County pre-school

·8 min read

There aren’t desks at Angel Oak Nature Academy. There aren’t metal chairs, pencils or plastic toys, either. When you drive up to the secluded Okatie property, there isn’t even a building.

Instead, preschoolers giggle at tent caterpillars on wooden tree stumps, draw the alphabet with sticks in the sand, and pretend that palm husks are sharks and giant squids in battle. The “classroom” is 15 acres of private, undeveloped, land overlooking the marsh.

One student answered “everything,” when asked what he likes most about school, not taking his eyes off the binoculars he was using to look for a bald eagle across the water.

Christy Richard opened the academy for preschoolers this school year, in September 2022, and there are four students in her class ages 4 to 6. They’re outside rain or shine, and school has only been canceled twice this year due to weather.

“We’ve got rain pants, raincoats. Everything’s waterproof. We’ve got boots and we go out and the kids love it,” she said. “They’re so excited to jump in puddles.”

Enrollment for the 2023-24 school year is currently open for the two-day-a-week program, which is $350 per month, and a new one-day-a-week elementary program designed for home schooled children, which will be $200 per month. Both programs are half-day. In the near future, Richard says she hopes to have a program for elementary school students.

Angel Oak Nature Academy is the first “forest school” — sometimes called nature school or outdoor school — in Beaufort County. While some students thrive in traditional schooling, alternative education works best for others and new methods are expanding in the Lowcountry.

Students gather around a circle of tree stumps for snack time and reading.
Students gather around a circle of tree stumps for snack time and reading.

Forest school students learn through outdoor exploration, according to Richard, who said the learning method allows for unstructured play. A certification isn’t necessary to be considered a forest school. Instead they’re defined as schools that fully adopt nature-based education as the core of their program, according to the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE).

This is one difference between forest schools, and other schools and daycare programs that incorporate nature with gardens, outdoor classrooms and field trips.

Another is that in forest school, children are able to choose what they want to learn about each day versus being forced to learn about set topics. Often behavior issues arise when students aren’t interested the lesson, according to Richard, who started her teaching career in a traditional Beaufort County public school classroom.

It’s not a problem in forest school, she said.

“The kids are able to go and find what they’re interested in — mushrooms or a lizard,” said Richard, who is a Master Naturalist. “I’m not stopping them from that. Instead, I’m coming alongside with my knowledge to talk to them about it and to compare and contrast different things.”

Since forest schools just recently started gaining traction in the United States, there aren’t any specific regulations, according to Richard, and each teacher is able to make the school curriculum their own.

An Angel Oak Nature Academy student looks through binoculars for a bald eagle.
An Angel Oak Nature Academy student looks through binoculars for a bald eagle.

In 2020, there were nine such forest schools in South Carolina including in Charleston and Columbia, according to the most recent NAAEE report. Most are preschool and a few are kindergarten and lower elementary school. Almost all of them are half-day, like Angel Oak Nature Academy, and grades above preschool are geared more toward home-schooled children.

In the U.S., forest schools have more than doubled since 2017 to 585 in 2020, according to the association. The schools are not accredited in the traditional sense, but the NAAEE does inspect the programs before accepting them. They are not certified by the state.

South Carolina child care programs are required to be licensed and regulated to meet state health and safety requirements unless they are legally exempt. The academy is legally exempt because it’s less than four hours a day and therefore has no formal state oversight.

Currently, Richard is the only employee, but said she will hire a certified teacher, like herself, for every four children if the academy keeps growing.

“Parents are really waking up to the fact that something needs to change for their kids,” said Richard, who grew up on Hilton Head. “We already have a couple of potential students for next year.”

Some parents choose the academy for the same reason their family moved to the area in the first place: to slow down and put less pressure on their children.

“There’s so much pressure (where we use to live) and we wondered how the boys would do if we just got away from that,” said parent Kati White, who use to live near Washington, D.C., in Virginia. “It was within the first month we just saw the pressure go off of them.”

Christy Richard teaches two students about the Fiddler crabs that live in South Carolina.
Christy Richard teaches two students about the Fiddler crabs that live in South Carolina.

Class with crabs and caterpillars

Typical class activities at Angel Oak Nature Academy include collecting flowers to talk about pollinators or investigating pumpkins the class left outside in the fall to understand decomposition.

Richard started teaching about 17 years ago in Beaufort County public schools, then moved to Cross Schools in 2018 where she designed, created and taught an environmental learning class. There, she said she first discovered the “benefits it brings, especially to our younger children.”

Angel Oak Nature Academy students practice letters in the sand.
Angel Oak Nature Academy students practice letters in the sand.

“In my opinion what we’re getting wrong in preschools is that we’ve taken away unstructured or extended amounts of time of unstructured play,” Richard said. “This is when so many critical developments should be happening for the kids.”

White saw the impact on her son almost immediately after joining.

“Since we started this program he’ll play on his own so much more,” she said. “(At the program) he’s not being stimulated with screens or excess noise or anything like that so I found that when he got home, he doesn’t need any of those things, either. He’s just happy to be in his own space, with his own thoughts, and I am so grateful.”

Richard became the lower school principal at Cross Schools, then left to start Angel Oak Nature Academy.

Play that isn’t directed by adults allows children to discover what they’re interested in, and forces them to exercise their creativity, Richard said, like making mud stew in a pot out of different natural “ingredients.”

“If they want to climb a tree, they’re climbing a tree,” Richard said. “If they want to pretend they’re fishing, they go ahead and do that.”

What about naps? It’s rare that the students get tired or need to use the restroom during the academy’s half-day, but if they do they’re able to listen to their bodies, she said.

“Their bodies move when their bodies want to move,” she said. “If their body needs to rest, they’ll sit on a log or swing in a hammock.”

If students need to use the restroom, they can relieve themselves in a portable kids potty in privacy. It’s something called “self-regulating,” where students learn to manage their thoughts and behaviors, Richard said.

Christy Richard founded Angel Oak Nature Academy this year.
Christy Richard founded Angel Oak Nature Academy this year.

“They listen to their bodies, and they’re able to act on that, which is not what they’re able to do in a traditional classroom,” she said.

For now, water comes in bottles. Lunch boxes are stored in a waterproof bin.

“The long-term goal is to for me to buy property, develop it, and have a lodge with bathrooms and running water,” Richard said.

Safety is Richard’s “biggest responsibility.” In the morning, she does a loop of the property with her Jeep to scare off any snakes, and since the beginning of the year the class has only seen one, which was non-venomous. Anytime they’re in or near the water she watches and monitors the grass both before and during their play for potential dangers, like alligators.

“They have to be able to hear directions and and respond to that,” said Richard, who is also first-aid certified should anything happen.And 911 is a phone call away.

One child turned on a dime when Richard asked him to stop running across the field and come back. She said forest school fosters positive behavior partially because students relax outdoors and are able to get their energy out.

Richard is able to teach students about the environment, and asks them questions throughout their exploration like “Can you tell if that caterpillar is poisonous or not?” and “How do we determine whether that fiddler crab is a boy or a girl?”

The students answers: “Not poisonous, because it doesn’t have red” and “by the claw!”

“They’re just playing, but the stuff they come away with is pretty awesome,” White said.

Two Angel Oak Nature Academy students play in the sand.
Two Angel Oak Nature Academy students play in the sand.

It’s OK to fall in the water

It also teaches kids to navigate risk with real consequences, Richard said. Last week, a student fell in the water.

“I told him, ‘Hey, if you take the risk of going out on this part of the tree, you could fall in the water, that would be very cold,’” Richard said.

The student decided to take the risk, and took a “polar plunge,” too.

“You need a group of parents that are OK with kids taking risks, having challenges and having confrontations to build their social skills,” Richard said. “He might fall and get a scratch on his knee, or he might come home with a tick.”

These are conversations that Richard has with parents during the enrollment process, which includes multiple meetings and a trial, where the potential students spend a day with the group. White’s older son did a trial day, but didn’t like it. It was too much mud for him, White said.

Parents sign a liability waiver, like they would at any program where they’re out in nature, according to Richard.

The “classroom” is 15 acres of private, undeveloped, land overlooking the marsh.
The “classroom” is 15 acres of private, undeveloped, land overlooking the marsh.

“(It’s for) the child who loves being outside and loves learning and exploring,” parent Ian Burns said.

Richard said Angel Oak Nature Academy is what she wants to do for the rest of her teaching career.

“I can see this program really developing into something incredible,” she said.