Success Stories from a Forest School: The Rise of an Impactful Child Care Program

September 8, 2023

This is a synopsis of the Childhoods Podcast with David Calabrese which can be found here

David Calabrese, the visionary founder and director of Little Earthlings Forest School in San Francisco, is a testament to how childhood experiences can have lasting impacts. Having grown up in Wallingford, Connecticut, surrounded by woods, creeks, and a large Italian-American family, David's childhood was filled with countless outdoor adventures, risk-taking, and the joys of unrestricted play. These memories formed the backbone of the highly successful Little Earthlings Forest School that has now become a significant force in the outdoor school movement in Northern California.

Read about David's full story or jump to these sections:

The Journey of Little Earthlings Forest School

The Impact of Forest School on Children and Parents

Nature as a Classroom

What made David's childhood unique was the freedom and the sheer amount of time he spent exploring the woods behind his family's home. Unlike traditional play, David's childhood was unsupervised, offering a world of endless possibilities, from fishing by hand in the creek to building trails and forts. He shared these adventures and memories with other kids in his family and community that would shape their lives. The woods became their playground, a place where children learned organically about the plants, seasons, and animals around them. Even though they weren't aware of it at the time, they were engaging with nature on a deeply personal level, fostering curiosity and a sense of wonder.

It's not just about the physical challenges but about building confidence, resilience, and self-belief. When children are allowed to take calculated risks, they're better equipped to face challenges later in life.

Incorporating Childhood Experiences into Education

Little Earthlings Forest School echoes David's childhood adventures, with its emphasis on learning through nature. His own memories serve as a compass in directing the school's activities, reminding him of the wonder and excitement that comes with unrestricted play. This immersive outdoor experience, where children are encouraged to take risks, explore, and let their imaginations run wild, stands in stark contrast to the traditional classroom setup.

Students Learning at Little Earthlings Forest School | Wonderschool

David believes that risk-taking plays a pivotal role in child development. It's not just about the physical challenges but about building confidence, resilience, and self-belief. When children are allowed to take calculated risks, they're better equipped to face challenges later in life. For David, this philosophy wasn't just confined to childhood antics; it was the driving force behind the inception of Little Earthlings Forest School.

As David reflects on his upbringing in the woods he mentions, “we had, what we call today, agency. [When we were kids, we] said, ‘I'm going to jump across this five and a half foot creek, I know I can make it’. And there was nobody there to say, you shouldn't do that, or are you sure you can do that? Or what if... There was no one there. So it was up to you. And when these kids [today] have these great ideas, I remember what it's like. I definitely want to provide the space, the environment, and the opportunity for them to also have that. There's always the conversation in preschool about risk versus hazard, and we work with that every single day. We know the benefits of risk. They've been proven and the effect of allowing that girl to be able to find out, can I do this? Yes I can. On her sense of identity, on her esteem. To me, that's everything that's worth everything.” 

The Journey of Little Earthlings Forest School

Starting the school wasn't easy. David faced countless challenges, from skepticism to logistical issues. However, armed with his unwavering belief in the importance of outdoor learning and his own experiences, he persevered. From starting with just one student, the school's community grew, touching the lives of many children and parents along the way.

"Parents and alumni often share how the school has made a profound impact on their children's lives."

Today, Little Earthlings Forest School is more than just a school; it's a community. Parents and alumni often share how the school has made a profound impact on their children's lives. For David, these stories validate his belief in the importance of connecting children with nature, “this is such a wonderful educational model to offer for a wholesome wellbeing development of a child, as well as that child having the association of the environment, the planet, the natural world imprinted with simultaneously with their sense of self and their sense of relationship, building, friendships made. All of that gets connected”.

Students Learning at Little Earthlings Forest School | Wonderschool

Continuing the Legacy

David hopes that the legacy of Little Earthlings Forest School will continue with a new generation of young teachers who share his passion for outdoor learning. He envisions a world where children can experience the joys of nature, just as he did, learning in an environment that celebrates curiosity, freedom, and wonder.

In essence, David Calabrese's journey from the woods of Wallingford to the heart of San Francisco shows how our childhood shapes our passions and dreams. Through Little Earthlings Forest School, David has created a space where children can embrace the beauty of nature, savoring the simple joys that come with outdoor play, exploration, and discovery.

From Forest Wanderer to an Innovative Education Pioneer: The Journey to Establish a Forest School

David's life can be described as a winding journey, full of stars, art, philosophy, and nature. Growing up under the vastness of the cosmos, with Carl Sagan's 'Cosmos' acting as his backdrop, he constantly grappled with life's biggest questions. His time in nature, with family and early education experiences shaped his curious mind.

His early days were marked by a balance between his love for the outdoors and the formal learning of school. School was a place for making friends and discovering interests. But it was not without challenges. From touching a forbidden telescope to navigating through personal trials, his school years were filled with memories that shaped his decisions.

David's fascination with art ignited in elementary school. His encounter with Denise Mullen, a fellow student who sketched her own pictures, deeply inspired him. Despite his passion, life had other plans. His parents envisioned him in Xavier, a private high school with no art. Not one to be confined, David found a way to chase his art dreams, leading him to a high school with an impressive art program and a planetarium, which rekindled his love for the cosmos.

By college, David's horizons expanded further. He delved into art and philosophy at Manhattanville College, soaking in existential debates and developing a deeper appreciation for various perspectives. His passion for art was further fueled by exploratory trips to iconic museums in New York City. He also studied child development and specific program curriculums including Waldorf, Montessori and Reggio Emelia. 

As he navigated the world post-college, David realized that becoming an artist was not just about passion but also about sustainability. After a stint as a house painter and interacting with a diverse array of people, he understood the universality of human needs and aspirations, “...[as a house painter you see that] all of these people are different, and they're opening up doors for me, culturally, economically. You have all these preconceptions and stereotypes and they're being all destroyed. Thankfully, the common thing that you're finding with all these people is they're all people, and they have the same questions I have and the same needs I have, and they want the same things I want.” 

The turning point came when David found solace in nature. He saw the forest school as an amalgamation of his philosophies, learnings, and childhood memories. For David, the forest was dependable, teaching trust and consistency. Reflecting on his past and his teachings, David says “ [my family] came from Italy and our mandate was “to do better”. And so it wasn't just to do better for our own personal family, it was to do better for everyone. It's not good if only you're doing better. Everyone's got to do better. So I had always looked for ways on how you can be that person. How can you make a contribution? When I discovered the philosophy course, I was like, oh, this is it. This is it. When I got to the co-op child care program, I thought, this is it. Because again, it reminded me so much of the childhood that I'd grown up in.” This led him to start his own school. 

The forest school, aptly named Little Earthlings, became a sanctuary where children could forge connections with nature while also developing their sense of self and relationships. 

David teaching at Little Earthlings Forest School | Wonderschool

As David mentions, “when I'm working with families and young children, it's hard to see young children get hurt. It's hard to see them fail or suffer through things. But what I try to tell people is, if you look at your mentors, if you look at your heroes, the great writers, the great artists, the great actors, the great scientists, the great religious figures, whoever they are, and you look at their childhood, more often than not, you're going to see a not very pretty or ideal childhood.

And what we find is those experiences direct us. They course correct us. They lead us to where we really want to be. So we learn at a very early age now at Little Earthlings to welcome adversity and to learn that this is an opportunity for “I wonder what gift is coming out of this”.” 

The Impact of Forest School on Children and Parents

Children aged between three to five experienced the wonders of this unique educational model. Today, some of those children, now aged around nine, reflect the profound impact of David's innovative approach. While transitions to conventional schooling had their bumps, the foundational experiences from the forest school prepared them to navigate life confidently.

As David recalls, “one of the questions that prospective families have is, what are the children going to do when they get into the “real world or normal world?”. I do follow up with the families that have gone through my program and some do have a tough initial transition. However, even my kids who did not go to a forest school had a tough initial transition into kindergarten. But as all kids, once they are there, they're very comfortable. In other words, all the feedback has been that they're doing great.”

David runs his program ensuring that children know how to and are encouraged to self-advocate, to ask for what they want, and to be celebrated for.

David is always looking to bring the most fruitful experiences to the children in his program. He was reminded by a top teacher at a creative arts charter school in San Francisco, who had been teaching for 15 years, about the importance of the preschool experience. David tells the story, “I approached him and said ‘who do you want to show up in your class? In other words, what do you want from us?’ And the teacher said, please don't teach them their numbers. Please don't teach them how to read. Don't teach them their colors days of the week. That's my job. I'll teach them time. I'll do all that. If you can deliver me a child who can get up when they have to go to the bathroom, that would be great. It’s tough when they're too terrified to raise their hand or to ask. They just don't know.” 

Students actively engaged in Little Earthlings Forest School | Wonderschool

David runs his program ensuring that children know how to and are encouraged to self-advocate, to ask for what they want, and to be celebrated for. It is important for kids to learn that they can strive for what they want in a way where no one gets hurt and they don't hurt themselves. David says, “It’s important that they are familiar with their desires and needs. At the end of the day, when we have staff meetings, I have this conversation so many times as you whittle it down and throw observations and things back down to one core thing. And it is that “I matter”. The reason for the way that children act on their impulses is because they need to know just like we do, “I matter”. And so that's the thing that we try to remember and hold the most importance to at Little Earthlings.” 

In conclusion, David's journey from a curious child stargazing at night to a forest school director highlights the importance of staying true to one's passions and beliefs. It's a testament to the idea that education is not just about textbooks but also about holistic experiences, and in David's case, the wonders of the natural world.

To learn more about David’s program, Little Earthlings, head here

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