Posted by: James Wapotich | May 30, 2012

Trail Quest: Wild Roots Forest School

What if it was the power of meaningful play in nature that could change the world, save the environment and make us all better people?

And while the Wild Roots Forest School, doesn’t make this claim, studies have shown that kids who connect with the natural world at an early age are generally more self-confident, independent and creative. And that imaginative play outdoors fosters a sense of wonder and a deeper connection to the natural world. And that playing outdoors also brings a sense of well being to children and stimulates positive, collaborative social interactions. And that all of these combined can make one better prepared for real world situations and more adept at out of the box thinking.

In this day and age we seem to have forgotten what it’s like to just go outside and play. Watching the kids in the Wild Roots program engaged with their environment in imaginative play, working together, taking on projects and just being kids it was easy to see the joy that comes from feeling fully alive.

Wild Roots Forest School Richard Louv Santa Barbara


The Wild Roots Forest School was founded in 1998 by Lia Grippo and grew out of her combined interest in the outdoors and early education, and noticing the positive impact the outdoors has on children. Ms. Grippo started as a pre-school teacher at the UCSB Children’s Center and was drawn to the natural beauty that surrounds the campus and started taking her class outdoors.

“What I realized very quickly was that children who were having behavior problems, learning problems or social struggles in the classroom didn’t seem to really have them when we were in nature. The children were also happier and more engaged.”, Ms. Grippo told the News-Press. The more she noticed this phenomena the more inspired she became to work with kids outdoors, which led her to starting her own pre-school a few years later called Seedlings. The Seedlings Pre-School incorporated outdoor play and exploration into its format and later become the inspiration for the Wild Roots Forest School.

The Wild Roots Forest School offers a program for pre-schoolers called the Acorns that meets on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and last year partly in response to requests from parents the school added a program for Kindergartners called the Willows which is taught by Erin Boehme and meets weekday mornings, meeting with the Acorns class for part of the time on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Ms. Boehme was the project coordinator for the Kidspace Museum in Pasadena, has worked with the student teachers at Santa Barbara City College’s Children’s Center and brings a shared passion for outdoor education.

In visiting the class it’s easy to see that both of them are at home teaching outdoors and are gifted at being able to follow the interests of the children while providing an engaging structure for the classes.

Wild Roots Forest School Richard Louv Santa Barbara

Making bows

The day I visited the program, while the class was getting started, I watched as one of the kids became interested in having a bow to play with, which led to learning how to fashion a bow using wood found on site and string from the supplies on hand. This then set in motion the other kids wanting bows and joining in the creative play around hunting.

The play was infused with questions from Ms. Grippo and Ms. Boehme such as what kind of animals are there to hunt here? How would one sneak up on a particular animal and how would one prepare it? Which seemed to guide the children into a richer exploration of the world they were creating and all of it happening so seamlessly that it that was hard to tell that it wasn’t planned.

In watching the kids play I was reminded of what Richard Louv said during his recent talk in Santa Barbra entitled Saving Our Children – and Ourselves – Through Nature. Mr. Louv, who coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder, referring to the lack of nature connection children have these days and its impact, observed that in the imagination of a child a stick can be anything and is not limited to being a specific object the way in which many toys are. And that this of course isn’t just limited to sticks.

Or as Ms. Grippo put it so well, “The imagination becomes a bond, it allows everything that the children come in contact with to be alive. And for a young child, that’s really important. I think that’s really important for all of us, but it already lives in the young child – that everything has the ability to be alive for them”

It is that same sense of wonder or enchantment that effortlessly creates engagement. One of the highlights for me was watching a young girl as she was dropped off by her mother for class. The girl seemed shy and quiet, and I imagined that she was perhaps a little unsure what the day would hold or how she felt about it, but the minute she received a hunting bow she brightened and was energized, and immediately carried by the magic of imagination.

When the Wild Roots Forest School was first started it made use of a number of different outdoors sites around Santa Barbara and Goleta, but as the program evolved Ms. Grippo started to sense that the children might develop an even deeper connection to the land if they visited a few places more regularly. And so the program now alternates between just four locations so that the kids can still enjoy a variety of terrain but feel more connected to the places they visit.

“They now notice when there’s a new nest in a particular tree and they notice when they come back in another season and that nest is gone. Or they notice all of sudden that the wild mustard this year is so much taller than they were last year. And so now they really begin to know a place. They know where they can find the edible plants, or if we want to work with willow for a project they know where to find it. And so it’s become more relational.” Ms. Grippo said reflecting on the change.

Story telling and singing also plays an important part in the classes, and both teachers commit the stories they tell to memory or make them up on the spot to support the awareness that stories actually live in us. The power of story telling is that it again activates our imaginations.

“What we’ve found is that if children listen to stories that are told a lot, that when they are reading they don’t have the problem of understanding what they’re reading because they’re able to make their own images” Ms. Grippo said addressing the challenge around reading comprehension that a lot of kids face.

Wild Roots Forest School Richard Louv Santa Barbara

Stories and teaching

One of the stories that they shared was of Sammy and Sally Squirrel who were arguing over an acorn and ended up knocking themselves out of their tree. Then feeling upset at having cause the other harm, they then each argued that the other should have the acorn. They finally resolved to take the matter to grandmother squirrel who made acorn cookies for both of them to eat.

The power of this story is when the kids find themselves arguing over something they will often realize that their situation is similar to the story and work towards a solution together. Imagine if our leaders were able to drawn on a story they had heard when they were young that inspired collaboration and seeking wisdom from an elder.

The Wild Roots Forest School will also be hosting an Outdoor Conference for Early Childhood Educators in August of this year, that is open to educators and parents and will focus on deepening one’s ability to experience nature with children. For more information about the Wild Roots Forest School or the upcoming conference, visit

This article originally appeared in section A of the May 26th, 2012 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.


  1. Reblogged this on Get Children Outdoors! and commented:
    I wanted to post this on the Get Children Outdoor Blog because I think it sums up everything in such a beautiful way that I believe and desire for children. There is such a magic here in these words and education has become so regimented and formal that we have actually truly forgotten the necessity for awe and wonder, for true engagement inspired by the imagination and how real conceptualised living everyday is what the present is made for, the future relies on and is our child’s right.

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