While most people think of school as being in a building with a structured curriculum, one in North Kitsap is prioritizing hands-on learning and life skills in nature by offering an all-outdoor school from preschool to high school.
The school serves about 25 students in its full-time outdoor program, called Forest School, and has an additional 15 homeschooled students who attend the Nature Quest Program, school founder and program director Natalia Brightwood said.
There are about 15 staff members who teach subjects such as math, language arts, history, social studies, science and art. Additionally, they offer more in-depth outdoor subjects such as bushcraft skills, ancestral studies, ethnobotany, natural history, wilderness awareness, nature connection and archery.
“As a small school, we can cater to each student’s individual interests,” Brightwood said. “Inertia can be taught through archery and swordsmanship, lunar phases can be taught through puzzles in Educational Live-Action Role Play. We can teach history and geography through live-action role-play and tabletop gaming; math through cooking and woodworking, and so much more.”
One of the staples of the school is that students and staff meet rain or shine, warm or cold. They do have covered and partially enclosed spaces so that they are able to implement certain curricula. On campus days, students begin each day in an opening circle followed by morning movement and farm chores, per the school’s website. Fire is an integral part of Forest School, and students spend time rotating building outdoor fires to keep warm.
Students then move into the lessons of the day. After lunch, students engage in active play, followed by afternoon activities that reinforce the lessons. Monday also includes the music program Rhythms of the Wild. A closing circle completes the day.
On park days, students begin similarly, but then spend time exploring and reinforcing the curriculum. They continue to foster connection with nature, community and self, and expand upon their academic journey, the website states. The day is bookended with a closing circle.
“Hands-on learning is tangible and practical, rather than abstract concepts. Concepts are learned rather than memorized. Children do not just learn about the water cycle through books, they observe it. Rather than just learn about how weather works, they learn how to tell when barometric pressure changes based on how they feel in their body and when it will stop raining because of how the birds change their behavior,” Brightwood said.
The curriculum is carefully crafted to ensure participants learn practical life skills combined with real academic knowledge that will open their hearts, enrich their souls, and propel them into a future of intelligent and grounded nature connection, per the website.
WildWise School will be celebrating its 10-year anniversary in March as it first started in Jefferson County and then moved to NK in 2016. The school’s main campus is on Lindvog Road in Kingston. They also meet at Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park a few days a week. The schedule is Monday through Friday starting in September and ending in June. School days run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The cost is from $5,000 to $18,000 a year, depending on grade level, but they do offer some tuition assistance. There are added costs for other programs, camps and workshops that WildWise offers.
“It is our hope to serve a diverse socio-economic population, and that is where the importance of charitable gifts from the community comes in,” Brightwood said. “A voucher system would be incredible. As of right now, public schools spend around $20,000 per student through public funding.
Brightwood said the school has received positive feedback from parents. “It is not uncommon for tearful parents to explain how our programs have changed their lives, and how much their children love their school.
“More and more parents are recognizing the importance of nature connection, and want to prevent their children from spending their day surrounded by concrete walls with fluorescent lights while staring at a computer screen,” Brightwood said. “At the end of the day, parents want the healthiest experience and best education they can give their children. One of the most common statements we hear from parents is how much they wish they had a school like WildWise when they were young. We have parents who have moved and are planning to move from across the country to attend our school.”
But she knows it’s not for everyone.
“We are edgy and raw, experiential, and focus on personal growth and accountability. We take the concept of awareness to a whole new level. We do not tell children to be careful; we teach them personal risk assessment and to be aware of their own physical and emotional limitations. Within a fiercely held container of risk management, we give them space to fall down and then teach them how to get back up.”
WildWise also offers nature-centric spring and summer programs, guided backpack journeys and wilderness rites of passage for youths, adults and families. For some, WildWise travels out of Kitsap County to places like Olympic National Park and Forest.