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What is the Appalachian Forest School (AFS) community like?

AFS started in 2018 with 4 students, a borrowed SUV, and a dream. Nearly 7 years later, we have 2 locations and 60 students enrolled at any given time. Our forest school community represents families from at least 8 different countries. Since our start in 2018, over 500 students have attended AFS! 

Is AFS a licensed program?

Yes! AFS is the first 100% outdoor forest school in the state of Virginia to be licensed with the VA Department of Education. 

What do AFS students do?

Play outside! Students learn about their interests through discovery and inquiry. Our aim is to foster a sense of awe in children about the natural world, encourage peer collaboration, and cultivate a positive attitude toward learning. Read more on our Philosophy page. 

Where does AFS meet?

Drop off is at 9am and pick up is at 3pm. We have classes based out of Downtown Harrisonburg and Downtown Staunton. 

Where does AFS go?

Public and private land around the Shenandoah Valley including George Washington National Forest, Shenandoah National Park, Harrisonburg City Parks, Staunton City Parks, and properties of the friends of AFS. In the winter months, we utilize a local summer camp with access to a cabin/fireplace.

When does the program occur?

AFS takes place during the academic year from late August through early May. During summer break, AFS offers a program called the Little Explorers Club.

Do you ever close due to inclement weather?

We play outside every day rain or shine! However, because we are responsible for transportation, if Rockingham County Public Schools is closed due to inclement weather, AFS will be closed as well. 

What do you do on cold winter days?

In the winter months, we utilize a local summer camp. On this property, we have access to forest, meadows, and trails as well as a cabin for shelter in case of inclement weather. All AFS students wear a winter uniform that ensures they are prepared for any type of weather. 

Do you have a curriculum?

We use emergent curriculum, which means that teachers are responsive to the students' curiosity and build meaningful learning experiences that relate to the interests of the children. For example, if the class notices a caterpillar, we may read a book about the life cycle of a butterfly. If the class is fascinated by puddles, the teacher might introduce materials or ideas that pique the interest of the group (ex: experimenting with flotation: sticks, rocks, leaves, etc.) Play is unstructured and mostly led by the students. By experiencing unstructured immersion in nature, the students make deep connections with each other and with the landscape around them. We utilize inquiry based learning, meaning that the teachers are more likely to ask questions rather than supply answers. This helps the students learn to problem solve on their own.

What does a typical day look like?

  • Drop off at 9:00

  • Drive to the location for the day

  • Play & Exploration (exploring streams, building forts, hiking on trails, jumping in puddles, balancing on fallen logs, etc.)

  • Snack time (chat with each other, discuss things we are thankful for, listen to the birds)

  • Play & Exploration

  • Lunch

  • Story Time

  • Students nap on the way back to town 

AFS teachers are:

  • Locally invested

  • Experienced outdoors people

  • Positive in any weather or situation

  • Respectful toward students and the environment

  • Able to balance discovery and instruction

  • Able to ask open ended questions that spark curiosity and encourage conversation

  • Vigilant about safety

All instructors are required to clear three different national background checks prior to employment, as well as a driving record check. Upon hire, all instructors complete 18 hours of training with the VA Department of Education on general topics related to child day programs, then 16 hours of in-house training on forest school specific policies and procedures. All teachers are First Aid/CPR certified. Our teachers come from a variety of different backgrounds, which you can read about on our staff page

Is forest school dangerous?

The safety of the children in our care is our main concern. There are risks inherent to outdoor recreation; through planning, supervision, and preparedness, these risks can be mitigated and approached with care. The locations AFS visits are familiar to teachers and particular hazards have been noted. Further, careful assessment of and interaction with risk to arrive at safe outcomes is a skill set lost as our culture becomes more protective, sheltering, and risk-averse. We want your child to be safe. We also want your child to know that it is ok to fall down, that scraped knees heal, and that they are more capable than society recognizes. We believe small risks build skills for assessing larger ones. Kids at AFS take appropriate risks and learn to guide themselves safely, thoughtfully, and confidently.


Each AFS class carries a satellite messenger. This means that Emergency Medical Services or the AFS Director can be reached even if there is no cell service. 

How many students are in each class?

AFS has 60 students enrolled at any given time, with each class going to a different location each week. Each​ class has two teachers and a maximum of 10 students. This ratio is more conservative than the state regulations stipulate, as we want to be extra vigilant about the safety of our classes in the outdoor environment.

Does my child need to be potty trained to attend?

Yes. Because of the added complication of diapers in the outdoors, all AFS students must be potty trained. 


How do students go to the bathroom in the woods? 

Most forest school locations do not have bathroom facilities available, so AFS students learn to go to the bathroom in the woods, following Leave No Trace principles. On the first day, the teachers explain and appropriately demonstrate how to to to the bathroom in the woods. We understand that this might be an adjustment for some students and encourage families to practice on their own at home! 

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