Home » Coalition of Family Engagement Innovators » Learning how to slow down in early family engagement: Reflections from visits to Brooklyn Forest

Learning how to slow down in early family engagement: Reflections from visits to Brooklyn Forest

The Jewish Education Project
The Jewish Education Project is a beneficiary of UJA-Federation of New York

Shariee Calderone

Families are on the go! There’s no doubt about it. And it’s hard to capture their attention. Family engagement providers therefore do what they can to engage families in creative ways during their programs and classes: they build in lots of excitement, use colorful materials, and often incorporate loud energetic music. The assumption is programming needs to be as fast as the families themselves.

Well, I think our assumption is successfully being challenged, and I couldn’t be happier!

A few weeks ago I coordinated an opportunity for early engagement educators in two of my networks to visit and observe a family enrichment program called Brooklyn Forest located in NY. Brooklyn Forest classes are nature-based family experiences for children under 3 and their parents or caregivers, although recently they’ve added a class for 3-5 year olds. The classes take place in either Central Park (Manhattan) or Prospect Park (Brooklyn) and are led by educators trained in the Brooklyn Forest method. My wording not theirs.


But here IS some of their wording from their website:

The class is simple and that’s intentional. We want each child’s encounter with nature to be wonderful, so we try to not get in the way of that wonder. We’ve designed a class that lets children follow their own imaginations and gives them the freedom to explore on their own.

BF by lake

It turns out that Joylynn and Charlie Holder, the Founders of Brooklyn Forest, have Waldorf School backgrounds which has had a great influence on the design of their classes. Meeting with Joylynn and Charlie on a few occasions now, I’ve come to be so inspired by their commitment to a particular set of early engagement principles, first and foremost the importance of connecting children to nature. They believe families in NYC are especially deprived of the nature connection and need this. I’d say families in the suburbs are similarly deprived and need it. It’s the adage shared by many naturalists today that nature-deficit disorder exists, and it exists everywhere. No one is immune. The other principle Joylynn and Charlie have is that children experience wonder naturally (excuse the pun) and need only to be brought to the setting. That everything else will follow. And the last big principal that they embody is the notion that less is more, and that children don’t need activities hurtled at them at great speeds to encounter joy and stimulation.

What the program looks like:

Brooklyn Forest classes run for about 90 minutes.  Parents sign up for a semester of 14 classes. The class structure is simple. Families meet at the park entrance and mosey about for a while settling in to their surrounding and potentially decompressing from any stress they may have had that morning. The leaders greet families unceremoniously and begin to engage with nature by shuffling sticks around, noticing flowers or building small structures like fairy houses and train tracks, using whatever materials nature has provided them with that day. After this they take a 10-15 minute walk to their spot in the park and settle in once again for some free play (typically with water and dirt). The have a snack, take another short walk, have circle time, say goodbye and end the program by running with scarves. Here’s how Joylynn and Charlie describe the class on their website.  The odd thing is it actually sounds more structured than it feels when you see it!

Here’s some of what the visiting educators noticed and took away from their observation:

– They crafted a great flow that began with a settling activity, a walk that families shared together, and then created exploration opportunities that brought kids and adults into conversation and community

– There’s a vibe of love and compassion and space, from the gentle bell that calls them together at the beginning, to the soft repetitive voices and songs, to the homemade bread and apple butter

– Regular watch and phone time were left behind in favor of a natural time that courses through the program like a gentle brook. No time pressures, no hurry. 

– Since last week I have become so much more aware of decibel level.  I have begun to speak and sing more softly and to notice how often we seem to feel the need to be loud with children, and to tell them things instead of showing and sharing gently.  

– It was all so lovely, so appropriate, so friendly, so happy.  In a few words: delightful. simple, yet profound.

– The program philosophy of having no agenda other than to get to know the children and families and facilitate the experience.

– Dedication to quiet so as to allow the full sensory experience

I love when educators see something that is truly unique and that challenges their assumptions even a little. This doesn’t mean all programming needs to be soft, slow and held in nature. But it does suggest that families can embrace downtime, and educators shouldn’t be afraid to build quieter moments into our own early engagement programs.

And on a personal note:

The Brooklyn Forest model has inspired me as well. I’ve been thinking a lot more about what a Jewish nature class for families with very young children could look like. One that’s similar in design, but with a Jewish frame and lens. I actually don’t think this is that difficult. Here’s a list of values I think are modeled at Brooklyn Forest classes that can be similarly offered through a Jewish lens:

  • Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim (kindness to animals) – BF educators dig up a worm and then gingerly shows each child the wiggly worm in their hand. They also walk to the pond and admire the ducks and birds that happen to be there.
  • Shalom (peace) – BF educators see NY as being full of tumult and therefore aspire to create serenity and calmness in their classes.
  • Shmiat HaOzen (attentiveness) – BF educators listen with their whole heart. They are purposefully quiet so they can hear nature and every child.
  • V’achalta V’savata (to eat and be satisfied) – BF educators create a holy experience in the way they wash hands before eating, serve bread and tea in cherishable ways, and sing a song of thanks that easily resembles a blessing.
  • Ma’aseh B’reishit (miracle of creation) – BF educators take time to observe nature with the children and see a particular value in observing the same things repeatedly (ponds, mud puddles, tree limbs) punctuating that each time we experience these items we see their beauty over and over again.
  • Masoret (tradition) – BF educators create ritual and tradition by repeating experiences in their classes. Young children especially need repeat experiences to learn and connect with the things around them as they mature and take it all in. Jewish educators can build in traditional songs, lines from folk tales, and blessings.

This summer I will be testing this idea out when I plan a few early engagement experiences at the Garden of Eve farm in Riverhead. I’m hoping to learn as I go and share what I’ve learned in subsequent posts!


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