HUDDLESTON — Seven children run down to what is called “Critter Creek” one Wednesday morning in a forest in the middle of Huddleston. It is here the children scatter. They bounce from the creek into the sandbox and then onto the canoe, which is hung about a foot off the ground between two trees.
Catherine Eubank, director and founder of ONE Forest School at Smith Mountain Lake, said the children climb in and practice balance so they can be prepared when they are actually in a canoe on the water.
The ONE Forest School at Smith Mountain Lake is a nature-based outdoor education camp for children of all ages and abilities. It is a learner-centered holistic approach to education.
ONE is an acronym for “Organic Nature Experience."
Eubank opened ONE Forest School about one month ago and has seven students registered at the moment between the ages of 2 and 11. It runs from May until the end of August and costs $175 per week or $150 per week if a child registers for three or more weeks.
“I made it work. I wanted to find something that I liked, I love playing with kids, love it,” she said. “I mean how much fun is this to play all day? In the creek, in the mud pit and the canoe and the sand. We’re bringing kids back to nature.”
She said she created the school so children could explore the natural world and play, investigate and observe what nature has to offer.
Eubank, who was formerly in the restaurant business and then worked 10 years for Smith Mountain Lake State Park, was ready to move on to her next venture after her eight children had grown and decided she wanted to open a Forest School. This fall the school will become accredited through the International Forest Schools program.
“A Forest School is a whole way of teaching kids. It’s not just putting them in the forest. It’s child-lead and you’re just providing them with an opportunity so you can step forward and teach them something,” she said. “We’re giving them the chance to tell us what they want to learn and then we take it from there.”
The children who have been coming for the past month stay throughout the day and are picked up around 5 p.m., Eubank said, but there is also an option available for children who want a shortened day.
The school is located on eight acres on a nature preserve at Eubank’s home down the road from Huddleston Elementary School.
Eubank’s 11-month-old bloodhound, Daisy, comes along to help with the children each day. Her purpose is two-fold.
Daisy helps to make sure the children are safe and keeps away snakes and critters as she trains to become a therapy dog.
Daisy is taking classes to become a fully qualified SEAL dog, meaning she will aid in the social and emotional aspects of learning.
Eubank said having a therapy dog in a Forest School helps children learn empathy, develop social skills and recognize the needs and moods of others.
Children are dropped off around 7:30 a.m. and by 9 a.m. they start to make their way into the forest, where they have three designated areas for activities and play.
The first stop is at “Base Camp” which consists of “Caterpillar Corner” where six hammocks hang between shady trees for kids to nap in. Across the way is the beginnings of an outdoor school room that will be built into the hillside.
Eubank said the schoolhouse will look similar to an outdoor shelter with three walls and an open front. The shelter will have tables, chairs and shelving to hold crafts and learning materials.
Eubank and her husband Danny have created the entire Forest School themselves over the past two years and have cut down shrubbery, trees and vines to create trails throughout the woods and built bridges across the creek.
Down the path from Base Camp is Critter Creek, which includes a Virginia Creeper vine that hangs from a nearby tree and a mud pit where children create their own mud pies.
Critter Creek also has a first aid kit and emergency action plan under a shelter Eubank and her husband built for “just-in-case situations," as well as two old wire wheels that are now used as tables.
At Deerhead, a third play area, campfire, theater, camp kitchen and pavilion are found. Hanging above the pavilion, where children eat their snacks and lunches and do crafts, is a 35-foot-long army parachute for shade.
Eubank said what she is trying to accomplish with the school is to enrich the lives of as many children as she can.
“I mean look at this, it’s like their own enchanted play area,” she said as she views what she has built.
Ava Rainsford, 2, is enrolled in the camp all summer before she and her family move to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Ava’s mother, Danielle Bird, said while searching for a daycare for her daughter, she came across the Forest School.
“Ava loves to be outdoors and I wanted her to continue to have social interactions with other kids and do outdoor activities,” Bird said.
She said her daughter has loved the camp and especially spending time in the creek and meeting new friends.
“I hope she gets an appreciation for all things in nature,” she said. “Plants, animals, things she shouldn’t touch. Just being able to explore the creek and mud pies in the mud pit and get down and dirty.”
Angus Sutherland, 11, is the oldest of the group and on some days, Eubank’s right-hand-man.
He lives in Florida but is in Virginia for the summer and said he has loved spending the past week in nature.
He said he prefers the Forest School to staying inside playing video games or watching TV.
Angus even wrote a play to be performed at the Forest Theater at Deerhead about a child who didn’t want to go to Forest School.
“He likes playing video games, he’s the average kid and somehow he starts liking Forest School and somehow the Forest School is being taken away because they don’t have the money to keep it and then he somehow saves it,” he said.
Angus said he enjoys the topography in Virginia since he is used to being around much smaller trees, sand and water.
“But now that I’m really experiencing being in nature now that I’m older, I just love it,” he said.