Natural Progression

Fiddleheads Farm and Forest School offers a transformative forest learning curriculum


On a striking 1768 Manchester homestead, seeds of curiosity are sprouting into bright and well-balanced futures for Southern Vermont’s young learners. Jessica Rhys, founder of Fiddleheads Farm and Forest School, has drawn on decades of experience as an early childhood educator to create a unique and dynamic early childhood education program. Through her work at Fiddleheads, she nurtures the minds of her students while encouraging positive connections with other children and their surrounding environments. Fiddleheads’ curriculum is grounded in observation and interaction with the natural world, offering opportunities for participating children to develop mindfulness and empathy while strengthening their neurological development. Their summer program, farm stand, and garden workshops further their mission beyond their primary pre-kindergarten curriculum, building additional bridges of environmental awareness and community participation.

From the fun and colorful schoolroom and play yard to the surrounding gardens, pond, trails, and forests, Fiddleheads takes full advantage of Manchester’s natural resources. “We use nature as our co-teacher,” Rhys likes to say. She and her small, skilled team of like-minded educators integrate cutting-edge experiential and sensory learning techniques with accessible, well-curated lesson plans. In doing so, they are blazing innovative educational trails in every sense. In the midst of finishing the spring semester and preparing for the summer program, Rhys shared the inspiration behind Fiddleheads’ curriculum, her thoughts on the transformative power of immersive, outdoor education, and the full-circle story of her journey as an educator and native Vermonter.

A Day in the Forest

Fiddleheads’ primary program, the Forest Preschool, takes place Monday through Thursday from 9am – 1pm throughout the school year, September through June. Children ages three through six enroll on a yearly basis, and parents are encouraged to apply well in advance. Class sizes typically range from ten to twelve students, and afterschool programming is also available for parents who opt for later pickup times. The day begins with drop-off at 9:00am. After the children arrive, Rhys and her co-educators, Kristin Beavor and Michelle Aldrich, and Rhys’ mother, Bonnie Bean, AKA “Grandma Bonnie,” run through a “forest preparedness” checklist. “My mother is an experienced educator who has been teaching for decades,” says Rhys. “She loves bringing our dogs on our forest walks and reading stories to our students.” The checklist includes seasonally-appropriate clothing, lunch, and snacks, as well as additional seasonal safety andtransportation equipment. “We walk to the forest whenever possible,” says Rhys. “If the high temperature for the day is below 35° F or it is raining or snowing heavily, we will stay on the school grounds for the day, but we always go outside. Safety is our highest priority.” 

Upon completing the preparedness check, students are led through the gate of the play yard, passing the school building and several additional farm-style outbuildings on the Fiddleheads property. Behind the school building, a garden and orchard with several fruit trees, a greenhouse, and a bee colony serve as the site of outdoor activities in the Summer and Fall. A barn with hay bales and several chickens stands next to a small hillside clearing and pond. “We go sledding down the hill, and we hold seasonal celebrations there, including a lighted spiral ceremony during the winter solstice.” shares Rhys. “We often walk around the pond and experience the ecology there. We see muskrats, turtles, and all kinds of animals, and the children get to know them.”

The trail continues onward, passing Manchester Elementary and Middle School and the Manchester Community Garden. It leads through Dana L. Thompson Memorial Park, passing by the skatepark, Applejack Stadium, and the dog park enclosure. Along the trail, the children pause for snack time, replenishing their energy amidst the beauty of nature. After walking through the park, Rhys brings her students into a small forest clearing. Here, the natural world becomes their classroom. Their daily schedule is carefully crafted to immerse them in enriching experiences that blend play, exploration, and environmental education. Upon arriving, students sit down and engage in a practice called “noticing,” where they quietly observe their surroundings for several minutes. They then share their observations with the group, fostering awareness of the natural world.

After coming together in the circle, they break away and engage in a myriad of play and child-led learning activities. From building fairy houses and baking imaginary treats in the forest “bakery” to embarking on imaginary voyages aboard a fallen log “boat,” the forest becomes a canvas for their boundless creativity and imagination. According to Rhys, this type of outdoor, imaginary play is deeply intertwined with problem solving and creative thinking later in life. The educational principles of forest school also hold opportunity for risk-taking and sensory exploration. “We really honor child-led risk-taking,” she explains. “We provide safe opportunities for children to explore their own boundaries.” By engaging in activities like climbing trees and navigating uneven terrain, children learn to assess risk and build resilience. “It helps children learn how to make careful and informed choices for themselves,” notes Rhys. “It also helps their neurological development and processing ability.” 

Rhys adds that by immersing themselves in the natural world, children develop deeper connections to their surroundings while enhancing their cognitive abilities. She elaborates: “I think it’s important for parents to understand how particularly important outdoor play is for school readiness skills, both in terms of regulating nervous systems and gaining neurological processing skills that are crucial for brain development.” Rhys explains that outdoor environments provide opportunities for young children to develop what is known as “proprioceptive sense,” which enhances spatial awareness and cognitive skills. “Even in a rural setting, if a child spends all their time walking on man-made, flat surfaces, their spatial awareness does not fully develop. Playing in a forest is certainly fun and engaging, but the effect that this kind of play has on neurological growth is significant.” Before lunchtime, students gather in a circle once more for story time, where tales of nature and wildlife come to life through engaging narratives. After lunch, they walk back to the schoolhouse, where they are picked up by their parents at the end of a long, fulfilling excursion. 

A Lesson for Every Season 

As the seasons change, the curriculum evolves to reflect the natural rhythms of the Vermont landscape. Each two-week period introduces a new thematic focus, seamlessly blending hands-on experiences with academic concepts. During the fall, Fiddleheads students delve into topics like seeds and fruits, culminating in a visit to the local Mad Tom apple orchard to observe the harvest season firsthand. Halloween brings an exploration of spiders, instilling curiosity and understanding of fascinating arachnids. 

As Winter approaches, the curriculum shifts to embrace the wonders of snow and ice. Fun, ice-related activities like making hand-cranked ice cream transform the classroom into a wonderland of discovery. The indoor classroom is equipped with a play kitchen, musical instruments, and cozy reading nooks. Children engage in a variety of engaging pursuits, from baking bread using locally sourced ingredients to crafting herbal teas from garden herbs. Nimbus and Smudge, the resident rabbits, add a touch of charm and companionship to the classroom. These gentle creatures offer valuable lessons in caretaking, responsibility, and respect for all living beings. 

When spring arrives, the focus transitions to earthworms, dirt, and gardening, preparing young minds for the emergence of new life and growth. Field trips to nearby natural attractions like Equinox Pond and Merck Forest offer more lessons beyond the classroom, providing opportunities for firsthand exploration of larger wildlife habitats. The culmination of each academic year is marked by a moving butterfly ceremony, a symbolic celebration of growth and transformation. After releasing butterflies they’ve nurtured from caterpillars in the final weeks of the semester, students make wearable wire butterfly wings, paint them, and decorate them. On the last day of class, students and parents are invited to a potluck-style picnic celebration. “The kids put their butterfly wings on and wrap up in little white sheets that represent cocoons. Beforehand, we ask them some of the things that they are most proud about learning that year at school. We read their responses as they unwrap themselves from their pretend cocoons. We all clap for them as they run around in their hand-painted wings, and they metaphorically spread those wings and embark on new journeys.” The ceremony honors the students’ achievements, reinforcing the cycle of life and the importance of embracing change.

In the summer months, the Fiddleheads summer program packs similar excitement and learning into a five-week period. The program operates on a flexible sign-up basis, allowing families to choose the weeks that suit their schedules best. From gardening workshops to nature hikes, every day brings a new adventure. “Last summer, we introduced family garden workshops, which were a hit with both kids and parents,” says Rhys. These workshops provided families with an opportunity to connect with nature while learning valuable gardening skills. The Fiddleheads Farm Stand runs from the late spring to early fall, offering a chance for program participants to engage with the community by sharing the fruits of their gardening projects. 

Rhys highlights the importance of interaction and collaboration during these sessions, adding that it enhances social skills of young participants and helps them to develop deep friendships. 

As Fiddleheads continues to expand its offerings, including a new adventure afterschool program for children ages 9-12 called, “The Outsiders,” and a farm-to-school collaboration with MEMS; Rhys is grateful for the upcoming Fiddleheads 2024 summer sessions, which promise more outdoor adventures and opportunities for growth and learning. “Our goal is to create memorable experiences that inspire a lifelong love for nature.”