Fiddleheads Forest School: What better way to make use of 230 green acres in the heart of the city than to educate children in the joys and wonders of the natural world?

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WELL, AN ALGAE met a fungus and I heard one say

To the other as I walked on by one day:

‘I can make some food for us if you can build a home,

And we’ll call ourselves a lichen and we’ll never roam.’ ”

The curriculum at the Fiddleheads Forest School follows the interests and excitement of its students. Teacher Kit Harrington, inspired by 5-year-old Hazel’s passion for lichen, came up with a song about the symbiotic nature of this ancient organism. Many of the preschoolers grip tufts of lichen as they sing beneath a canopy of conifers in their outdoor classroom in Washington Park Arboretum.

Cedar stumps serve as stations for art projects, and a science and math lab with photos of birds, a nest with an egg in it, feathers and a magnifying glass. The microscope and binoculars are the most popular items in this classroom, where inquisitiveness is encouraged. “The kids learn to look closely, to observe,” explains teacher Sarah Heller, who, along with Harrington and education interns, keep the kids busy and safe. Barred owls nest in nearby trees, and when they hoot, the kids hoot back. They follow raptor calls, enchanted when a Cooper’s hawk swoops through their classroom grove.

The children are layered into boots and hoodies, down and fleece, ready for any kind of weather. Kids are encouraged to move about, choose their activities. They go on field trips around the Arboretum to visit nurse logs and the old stone lookout building.

Fiddleheads Forest School, run by the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, is a big hit in a time when nature deficit disorder in children is a real concern. Not a computer or cellphone is in sight. School happens outdoors rain or shine, although there’s an old greenhouse nearby for shelter if it gets seriously stormy. The school serves more than 20 families and a rotating bunch of a dozen children who attend a varying number of days a week. What better way to make use of 230 green acres in the heart of the city than to educate children in the joys and wonders of the natural world? And you can be sure that at the end of their three-hour school day, the kids go home dirty, tired and happy.

A Fiddleheads Forest preschooler holds a tuft of prized lichen she collected from her outdoor classroom. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
A Fiddleheads Forest preschooler holds a tuft of prized lichen she collected from her outdoor classroom. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

The UW Botanic Gardens has long run the Saplings Program, offering field trips for kids of all ages. The day I visited Fiddleheads, 65 first-graders from Snoqualmie Elementary School were tramping through the Arboretum for a “Plants 101” adventure. Family nature classes are offered through the year and camps for school kids in the summer. Especially popular is “Park in the Dark,” where families and kids ages 5 to 12 explore the Arboretum at night.

But Fiddleheads Forest School is the Arboretum’s first ongoing preschool program, and one of the few truly outdoor preschool programs in the United States. It’s mostly self-supporting, with financial help from the Arboretum Foundation. An unexpected benefit has been a spike in Arboretum visits. “The kids are bringing their parents back to the Arboretum,” says Botanic Gardens director Sarah Reichard.

Fiddleheads Forest School is in demand and growing. Next year the school will open a new outdoor classroom to accommodate twice as many kids. And the tarp hanging between the trees? A donor has stepped up with money for an open-air canopy to keep the classroom and the kids dry on rainy days.

Learn more about the UWBG Public Education Program’s spring/summer offerings at uwbotanicgardens.org/education.