Firefly Forest School Director Bailey Lininger uses a trail sign to engage students outdoors.

Firefly Forest School Director Bailey Lininger uses a trail sign to engage students outdoors.

Photo by Lindsey Billings, provided by Firefly Forest School

Nature-based learning on the rise in Michigan

‘It really builds resilience, and kiddos understand that they are part of the world around them’

By: Mary Beth Almond | Metro | Published October 2, 2023


METRO DETROIT — Constantly inundated by technology, today’s kids are spending much of their free time hunched over a screen inside instead of playing outdoors.

Parents, on the other hand, are busy looking for experiences that will allow their children to unplug and get active, sparking the demand for nature-based schools and programs across the nation.

The drive to offer kids hands-on learning experiences outdoors — commonly referred to as the forest school or nature school movement — is a trend that’s gaining momentum nationwide, including in Michigan. In these schools and programs, children spend most — or all — of their time outside.

Last year, the Farmington Hills Nature Center at Heritage Park opened a Nature Preschool for children ages 3-5.

“We use the outdoors as our classroom, so we’re really building skills in a real-world learning environment. Skills like resilience, social skills, building a classroom community, and building a respect and curiosity for nature,” said Nature Center Supervisor Ashlie Smith.

Students at the Heritage Park Nature Preschool — a state licensed child care center with preschool teachers who are Forest School Certified — learn outside every day for the entire half-day class period they sign up for. If severe weather occurs, class activities are moved into a licensed classroom at the Nature Center.

“It’s meant to be very immersive, where children are learning throughout multiple seasons. … They’re here every day, all winter and on rainy days too … so it really builds resilience, and kiddos understand that they are part of the world around them,” said Smith.

To some, it may look like children at the Heritage Park Nature Preschool are simply playing outside for hours each day, but Smith said their time outdoors helps develop valuable skills and fosters traits like resilience, leadership, problem-solving and perseverance.

“Instead of having a classroom that is set up for them with everything perfectly arranged, they are learning that things are dynamic, things change and the seasons change. The classroom is different every time they come in, which really builds their ability to become self-sufficient and empowers them in their learning,” she explained.

In 2019, Bailey Lininger opened Firefly Forest School to better connect students with the natural world.

“Both parents and educators want kids to experience an unplugged childhood as much as they can — one where they can dig for worms, balance on fallen tree trunks and splash in puddles,” said Lininger, the director of Firefly Forest School.

Firefly Forest School provides southeast Michigan children ages 3-10 with immersive, nature-based learning through enrichment programming from nature preserves in the metro Detroit area.

“We love being able to complement a more traditional experience at a more traditional school with some time to just run and be free and play and climb and build and dig and do all the things that are a really important part of being a kid,” Lininger said.

Every class is held entirely outdoors every day, rain or shine, even in the chilly winter temperatures.

“We’re not just going outside for 20 minutes to play at recess or only when it’s nice and sunny and 75 degrees. We really work with our families and our kids to embrace all weather,” Lininger said.

Armed with the proper attire and outdoor gear, students are taught how to embrace the world around them as it is and use it as their classroom.

“The more time for unstructured play that you give kids in the natural world, the more creative they are, the more they learn, the more they deepen their growth and fine motor skills, the more they are able to explore and learn independently instead of just being guided, and the more opportunities they are given to be creative problem solvers, to think critically about things, to learn to be adaptable and flexible,” added Lininger.

Students are free to run, jump, splash and explore and, in the process, they are constantly learning and growing.

“One of the things that we really focus on in our program is instilling a sense of self-efficacy and capability in our kids. We’re really focused on giving our kids the chance to feel competent and capable — that’s something that we see a ton of growth in,” Lininger said. “We see a lot of confidence too.”