Forest Gnomes Gear Up for Winter

Amy Mevorach
Issue Date: 
November, 2018
Article Body: 

In rain, snow, sleet, or shine, young children in the Forest Gnomes program at the Natick Community Organic Farm tramp down a path between flowers and vegetables, over a stream and into the forest, where they play outdoors for two mornings a week. Sam Leder and Libby Wilkinson, known to the Gnomes as Miss Sam and Miss Libby, facilitate the outdoor experience. “We only go indoors if it is dangerous to be outside,” said Leder. In thunder and lightning or extreme cold, a group of twelve gnomes and two teachers take shelter inside the Gnome Home, a wooden hut with a wood burning stove and a loft.
The program is unique even among nature-based preschool classrooms because they spend almost all of their time outside. In the cold, they will build an outdoor fire and keep moving to stay warm. “The right gear changes everything,” said Wilkinsons. Layers of wool, silk or synthetic fabrics under water- and snow-proof coats and snowpants can keep a child warm, even hot. Puddle pants, which are waterproof pants with a smock, suspenders and elasticized ankles, are almost ubiquitous in spring and fall. Bog boots and extra layers of wool socks can make the difference between miserable and fun.
Usually, the Gnomes are not bothered by the weather. “In a downpour,” Wilkinson said, “they’ll be playing like any other day. Some of them take their hoods off and put their heads under the rain gutter.” Leder emphasizes the importance of adult modeling. “They pick up our reactions, so we are out there with no umbrellas. They learn to connect to nature, and have their own relationship with the world.”
Metal shovels, buckets, rakes, and child-sized wheelbarrows are available in the shed. “The toys are not typical preschool toys,” said Leder. Pieces of plywood can function for many uses: money, dishes, an ipad, a cell phone, etc. “They are not specific to one purpose. It encourages creativity.” Balance beams, a sand box, a tree house, a climbing net and several swings, all with a rustic, natural aesthetic, have been added to the forest play area. The Gnomes engage with each other through an emergent, play-based curriculum. In other words, said Leder, “They’re little people going about their business.”
Their business could be a hot chocolate factory, making soup or mud pies, climbing trees, hunting for slugs, or whatever they invent at the moment. They are encouraged to take risks, through which they learn to be resilient and to regulate their emotions.
Wilkinson has a degree in Environmental Studies and experience in education. Leder has studied child development and interned at a Forest Kindergarten in Copenhagen, Denmark. When conflicts arise, Wilkinson and Leder let the children attempt to resolve it themselves, but will engage with the conflict if the peer to peer resolution does not succeed. “They learn lessons of consent, emotional regulation, voicing opinions,” said Wilkinson. “Their brains are hardwired for this really early on, and that will be their foundation, learning from peers, listening to peers.”
Peer interaction is encouraged among families of Gnomes as well, as they gather throughout the year for a lantern festival, a winter festival, camp fires, a family work day, and the bridging ceremony. Many families love the Forest Gnomes so much they send two, three, or more children through the program. Whether they bridge from Gnomes to public school, private school, or homeschooling, the children retain an abiding love for nature.