On an overcast Seattle morning a woman named Kit Harrington and several preschool-age children are crouched around the edges of an upturned cedar log, looking intently at the moldering leaves, dirt, and bugs they have just exposed to the world.

“I see a cricket,” Harrington — who is one of the co-founders of Fiddleheads Forest School and previously a Montessori teacher — says to the group. The children tighten in around the log.

Sarah (Short) Heller ’09Sarah (Short) Heller ’09“Can I have a cricket?” a boy named Reese gasps. “I want one!” There is a temporary upset when a little girl named Lilly traps a cricket in her clear plastic bug jar before Reese finds one.

Each fall, a new crop of preschoolers sets out for their first taste of formal education. Usually, this means kids in classrooms, playing with blocks, painting, and training their bodies to sit still for what will be the next 13 years in a classroom. But right now a new experiment in early education is playing out in parks around Seattle, Washington. At Fiddleheads Forest School, three and four-year-olds will spend their whole school day outside — playing in the mud, climbing over logs, and learning about bugs and birds. Even in famously rainy Seattle, there are no buildings for this school. If there’s a storm, they take cover in a greenhouse.

At Fiddleheads Forest School, three and four-year-olds will spend their whole school day outside — playing in the mud, climbing over logs, and learning about bugs and birds.

The Fiddleheads “classroom” is a clearing under a canopy of cedar, fir, and maple trees in Washington Park Arboretum. Sprinkled around the clearing are different “stations” — a circle of logs to sit and eat lunch on, several more upturned cedar logs that are being used as tables for painting or for reading. The “Science,” station has laminated cards diagraming the life cycle of a preying mantis, a microscope, and a plastic terrarium to entomb the students’ captured crickets.

“Over there, that’s for shows,” a little boy named Bergan says, pointing to the theater — a rope strung between two trees with burlap cloth hanging down and parted in the middle for stage curtains. For many of the 14 students, this is their first week at Fiddleheads. They shriek and speed around the classroom wearing neoprene galoshes with dinosaurs and spiders on them and brightly colored Gore-Tex onesie rain-suits.

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