Gabbie Rhodes Is Teaching in a Forest Pre-School

Posted by Monica Hoel
Parents of a certain vintage are famous for the line, “Go outside and play.” But these days a lot of parents are saying, “Go outside and LEARN.”

Gabbie Rhodes knows all about this because she is a preschool teacher at Valley Forest School in Roanoke. She teaches a class of preschoolers in the forest – every day, rain or shine, cold or hot.

When Gabbie talks about her work, she can’t stop smiling. She says it’s such a great environment to teach in, and she loves watching how the students respond to the non-traditional “classroom.” There are no desks; “We have picnic tables, and some tree stumps to sit on!” There are no walls or ceilings; “We have tarps to keep us covered when it rains.” And there is no technology; “The children write in their journals every day, we have story time, there is very little play equipment, not much in the way of toys, everything is very hands-on.”

For those of us who have spent time around preschool-aged children, one wonders if they ever complain during bad weather. But Gabbie says learning to deal with circumstances and adversity is part of the education in forest school. “It’s easy to tell which of the kids are new and which have been with us awhile; the new kids might cry about the rain, but the experienced kids are out jumping in puddles!”

Building on the science that is showing us how being outside can be a benefit to children (improved attention span, improved mental health, reducing obesity, etc.), the forest seems like the perfect place for preschoolers to learn. And Valley Forest School didn’t have to worry about Covid protocols that shut down a lot of indoor classroom situations. In fact, they picked up some additional students when mainstream schools had to close for awhile.

Gabbie learned about this sort of school from a mother who had previously employed her as a nanny. She loved that Gabbie took her children on hikes and exploring and suggested she look into teaching in this type of environment.

Gabbie says the children in her classroom are covering all the basics, but when it’s time to study the letter “B” they do more than simply talk about bugs – they also get to follow a real bug and see where it goes as it travels across the forest school floor.

  • Gabbie Rhodes, Emory & Henry Class of 2016

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