ROCKY FACE — Arden Forest School officials welcomed visitors to the school's cozy pastoral hideaway in Rocky Face on Saturday for games, workshops, crafts and activities.

Adults and children were welcome at Autumn in the Forest, where workshop topics included nonviolent communication/conflict resolution, progressive education and ecopsychology, the study of the relationship between humans and the natural environment through both ecological and psychological principles.

While studying psychology in college, Amber Sane, co-founder of the school, took note of "the way people opened up when we were around the campfire, out in nature," she said. "Nature is incredibly healing — when I have my hands in the dirt gardening, I can feel the stress and anxiety go away — and we're incredibly lucky we can do this for kids."

Her own three children, a pair of sixth-graders and a fourth-grader, all have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and "this school has made a huge difference for them," she said. "Being out in nature is incredibly calming."

Arden Forest School "is a hybrid learning community featuring immersive, significant time outdoors as rooted in contemporary forest school philosophy, blended with quality academic classroom time," according to its website. Youth attendees learn in a "nature-based, collaborative environment that supports their academic and personal growth as human beings."

The school is in its first year, founded by Hope Gold, who spent decades as an educator (most recently in Charlotte, North Carolina), and Sane, who lives on the school's land with her wife and three children.

"We have the perfect setup here" on land that's been in Sane's family since the late 1700s and where several of her relatives still reside, she said. "We have a pond and a creek, and we converted this barn into a school, but we don't use it very often."

"Our days are outdoors, unless there's lightning" or other dangerous conditions, which are infrequent, she said. "We let the kids explore and create their own games, and it's pretty fascinating what they come up with."

Arden Forest intentionally keeps classes small, with no more than 17 children on any given day right now, and "we want to keep it under 30, for sure," she said. "We're intent on growing slowly, but people can (join) at any time."

"We're small but growing, and the outdoor setting is ideal," Gold said. "It's going really well, and parents are very happy."

Because enrollment is modest, students in grades kindergarten-grade six blend together, and that's beneficial to both older and younger, Sane said.

"The younger children develop faster, and the older kids help them," Sane said. This places older students "in the role of teacher, and that builds their confidence."

Due to the new coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Chatsworth's Kristen and Emily Slade elected to homeschool their daughter, Leah Tello, 12, this year, and the emphasis on outdoor learning at Arden Forest was attractive as a supplement to the home schooling, Kristen Slade said. "We do English and math at home, and they do science, arts, social studies, gardening," etc., at Arden Forest.

"She's learned things to teach me," such as resolving conflicts peacefully, she added with a chuckle. "She gets to do things here she probably wouldn't get to do" at a conventional school.

Nonviolent communication is emphasized at Arden Forest, "trying to help them (work through) their own arguments," Sane said. "We give them language to express themselves that is respectful and sets boundaries."

As with Kristen Slade, the pandemic was the impetus for Sane to homeschool her children this year, but she "worried about the loss of community" without them being in a traditional scholastic setting, she said. However, "we're developing that here, and (my children) are ecstatic."

Ardent Forest is "different than homeschooling, because you're not stuck at home with nobody else," said Wrynn Nicholson, a student at the school. "The forest is my favorite."

Tello attends Arden Forest twice weekly, like most students, and "she definitely looks forward to it," Kristen Slade said. "She's made friends, I feel like her confidence level is way higher than it was last year, and this is definitely the best decision we've made."

More information on the school can be found at https://www.ardenforestschool.com/.

As Arden Forest grows, the school may offer summer programming for students, Sane said. They also may invite adults to the site more, like Saturday's event, so "they can enjoy this (setting), too, because we want to create a learning community here, not just a school."

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