Congregation Emanu-El Forest School participants walk along the Mountain Lake Trail in San Francisco's Presidio. (Photo/Michael Gutnick)
Congregation Emanu-El Forest School participants walk along the Mountain Lake Trail in San Francisco's Presidio. (Photo/Michael Gutnick)

Emanu-El ‘forest’ preschool grows out of pandemic pivot

Preschool children typically spend their days singing, learning to make friends and doing art inside a classroom, with plenty of scheduled outside time for fresh air and a chance to run around.

But at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, the natural world has long been an extension of the classroom. Last year, due to the pandemic, it served as the full-time learning environment.

Now, even though the immediate threat of the pandemic is receding, all children 3 and older still spend half their time outdoors. They walk with their teachers along Mountain Lake trail to an open area where they can climb on logs and use their imaginations in a safe space. Wearing masks and following safe distances, they can play with materials brought out by the staff or what nature has provided.

Heather White, a longtime Emanu-El preschool teacher, appreciates the changes and the opportunity to lead her young students to explore the natural beauty in the Presidio, just a short walk from the synagogue.

Preschoolers at Congregation Emanu-El's Forest School in the Presidio. (Photo/Michael Gutnick)
Preschoolers at Congregation Emanu-El’s Forest School in the Presidio. (Photo/Michael Gutnick)

“If we can be out in nature, it’s just beneficial to everybody, as long as everybody is prepared with the right gear and the right attitude,” she said. “It gives them an opportunity to move their bodies and take in their natural environment and stimulates a different sensory experience. I’m a big proponent of being outside, especially with the younger age groups.”

The “forest school” style of teaching was developed in the 1950s in Denmark, where young children are educated in nature through play and hands-on exercises. The method is seen as a way to connect the students with nature, support social and cognitive development, and foster a more independent, child-led way of learning.

Wilderness Torah and Urban Adamah are two of the Bay Area organizations that are built on the ideals of outdoor learning, blending Jewish education and nature-based exploration. Wilderness Torah has intensive programs for kids from kindergarten to 12th grade, and Urban Adamah has popular summer camps, Shabbat and holiday programs and year-round family events.

In Emanu-El’s outdoor classroom, children ages 2 to 5 play music, do arts and crafts, and learn about Shabbat and holidays. They also practice the core Jewish values of tikkun olam (repairing the world), kavod (honor and respect), chesed (lovingkindness) and kehillah (community), while learning to appreciate the natural environment.

Senya, 4, likes the hikes that take her outside.

“It’s really all about going down the hills and through the trees,” Senya said. “That’s my favorite part about the hikes. I also really like climbing things and I really like playing with my friends.”

Forest School students are able to draw while soaking in the sun. (Photo/Michael Gutnick)
Forest School students are able to draw while soaking in the sun. (Photo/Michael Gutnick)

While Matthew, 4, enjoys eating lunch as his favorite part of the day. He also likes climbing on the outdoor obstacles.

“I like adventures, like playing on the octopus tree,” Matthew said.

Dalia, 4, appreciates building friendships with her classmates while playing games and using their imaginations.

“I like learning outside because I make new friends and I get to be outdoors. I also get to run around. That makes me smarter. It’s really fun.”

White believes the increased time spent outside has been beneficial for all.

“Last year was the first time we’ve been out full time,” she said. “We were able to learn pretty quickly what we could do outside versus inside. We did have to find a way to work more curriculum into the natural environment and that was a little tricky, but overall I think the year was really successful. Ultimately, all the children stayed healthy along with the teachers and families.”

Though the future is hard to predict during a pandemic, White also sees the “forest school” style of learning continuing to be a core part of the preschool program, which serves nearly 70 children.

“This has been a great environment for them. They’ve learned to be resilient in all kinds of weather. We always say that there’s no bad weather; there’s bad clothing. The group we had last year really built up those skills, and by the end, they were really confident,” White said. “This has been a valuable addition to the program.”

Michael Gutnick
Michael Gutnick

Michael Gutnick is a freelance journalist based in San Jose. He graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in 2021 with a BA in sports journalism.