Author: Tamar Kupiec
The Asheville Farmstead School is an outdoor, play-based early childhood education center founded and directed by Lauren Brown, a 2011 alum of the IslandWood graduate program. There’s a squat and homey stone farmhouse-turned-schoolhouse, but the children don’t spend much time in it, not when there’s a garden to tend, pine stumps and planks with which to build out in the yard, and 25 acres of fields and forested hills to explore.
The Asheville Farmstead School also happens to be the real-life incarnation of an IslandWood class project. Ben Klasky, then IslandWood’s CEO, taught a nonprofit administration class for the graduate program in which he asked students to dream up a nonprofit and draft a business plan. Lauren and three classmates created Sprouts, a mock farm-based preschool and homeschool. Six years later, Lauren would create a school of her own in this model, drawing on her IslandWood education for much more than a business plan.
Lauren’s first experience with the outdoor classroom was at IslandWood as a graduate student instructor in the School Overnight Program (SOP). She recalls the challenge of managing her field group down at Blakely Harbor, where she learned to keep track of her students without requiring them to do the same thing at the same time. This ability to grant freedom within established boundaries, to prepare children, even those as young as four and five, for this kind of trust, is essential to the teaching in nature and stimulating deep play she does today.
A class on the social and philosophical foundations of education opened her eyes to the many ways education could be transformed and delivered. Teaching in SOP allowed her to test ideas, such as the role of community and democracy in learning and the efficacy of child-centered education, in real time. And it showed her that like trust, joy, too, was essential to her teaching.
After finishing at IslandWood and completing a Master of Education at the University of Washington, Lauren accepted an opportunity to develop the middle school science program at her old private school in Utah. With a $20,000 budget for off-campus adventures alone, she was able to live “every educator’s dream.” But she soon found herself thinking that these students were too old. “I just wanted to be working with children on a more foundational level, where you have the ability to put in bricks that will stay with them for a lifetime. You’re not necessarily in the role of patching holes in a foundation—you’re helping lay it.”
In January 2017, building on her experience at IslandWood and teaching middle school, as well as her work in camp and preschool settings, Lauren opened the Asheville Farmstead School. In December that year, she trained with the late Erin Kenny, founder of The Cedarsong Nature School, a program on Vashon Island and a leader in the forest school movement. The Farmstead School recently earned Cedarsong accreditation, one of only four schools internationally to do so. The affiliation has given her the clarity, confidence, and expertise with which to a win over parents more concerned with literacy than social emotional skills and a connection to nature.
The twenty-one children who attend the Farmstead School are a crew of strong-willed and spirited kids, many of whom haven’t succeeded in other programs. Lauren embraces all learners and all temperaments. Because she is not implementing a set curriculum with set standards, she can meet them where they are and assess them as individuals. “If you judge an animal by how well it can climb a tree,” she says by way of analogy, “half of the animal population isn’t skilled.”
Lauren’s got an entire generation on her mind as she nurtures each child who comes to the Farmstead School—to ramble, farm, sing, build, play, and problem solve with one another in those fields and forested hills. These kids are going to face big decisions as adults, she says. “How in the world are we going to expect them to make decisions that protect the environment if they are not connected to [it]?”
Lauren Brown is an alum of IslandWood’s Education for Environment and Community (EEC) Graduate Program.