Thursday, April 25, 2024



“To the pond!” is the rally cry as children excitedly scamper to a new adventure. Young explorers of every age dive into the banks of the pond while their parents bring up the rear, hauling their children’s equipment.

Group leader Trenna Kelley shouts for help measuring the body of water as her son, Beckett, age 12, and his friend, Charlotte Sorrells, age 13, bravely cross the pond on foot with measuring tape held overhead.

First the estimates are given — or perhaps they are mere guesses — as voices shout out various numbers. When the official measurement is declared there are celebrations among those who guessed closest.

Next up is the collection of specimens. Laughter and squeals echo from each side of the pond as living creatures are discovered and studied.

These young explorers have gathered as members of Barefoot University. Similar scenes play out throughout the country weekly. Barefoot University is a national program utilized by some in the home school community. Currently there are groups in 16 states and individual memberships are available to homeschool families without a local Barefoot community.

The Barefoot program was started in 2019 by two moms who were looking for a community to walk alongside them — a community that could support their children’s love of the outdoors while also providing support navigating homeschooling, parenthood and life.

Barefoot University’s mission is to connect families to nature and each other. Its forest schools, according to its website, “aim to nourish the holistic health and education of children. Through child-led learning, STEM-based nature activities, and community service projects, (it) intend(s) to create communities and equip families to observe and explore the natural world.”

“Each year there is a different theme or Rhythm: Earth, Fire, Water, Sky and Barefoot. This year was Rhythm Water and next year is Rhythm Barefoot. Each one has a different focus. Rhythm Water focused on basic water science, water eco systems, and aquatic life. We also did a lot of watercolor nature journaling. Rhythm Barefoot will focus on animal homes, outdoor tools and cultures as well as physics. Every week is something different,” said Kelley.

Kelley elaborates, “Each group is run by two trained volunteers. Barefoot provides them with the curriculum and they in turn lead families in the lessons or activities each week. Each family, though, teaches and leads their own children. It is a family-based program and not a drop off school. We meet once a week for a few hours, no matter the weather, 36 weeks out of the year from August through May.”

Many of the supplies used by the group are provided in the sign-up fee. This year some of the supplies included watercolor journals, pencils, aquariums, nets, prisms, a fish to dissect and more. Some supplies are for the families to keep, and some are for group use. Participants say the cost is minimal and good value for supplies received and activities planned.

Several parents mentioned the community that happens alongside the learning. “Barefoot University is a great example of learning about the world through experiences. It brings together interesting topics with hands-on learning and lots of outdoor play. It often sparks interest and joy in learning, and helps our curriculum come alive for our son. I also love how B.U. has helped us build a great community. We have made lasting friendships and often get together outside of 'class,' especially over the summer,” explained parent Tiffany McGuffin.

Parents love the learning opportunities and community Barefoot University builds, and also the fun it provides. Certainly, fun is the foremost interest of the children.

“I like being able to go and hang out with my friends while learning about nature and getting to explore and play in the outdoors with my friends,” shares Beckett. Beckett’s favorite memory was when the group went to Camp El Tesoro on a field trip. They were given an opportunity to build their own fires to cook over. He says the best part of that day was the One-Match Fire Starting Competition.

Fun is the name of the game according to Charlotte, as well, and she loves the way it stirs creativity. “I love it because it gets me outside having fun and inspires my creativity in the way we build things and play imaginative games.”

“My family decided to homeschool partially in order to give our children the opportunity to have a richer, more natural education. Barefoot helps me open up the natural world and teach my children concepts and appreciation for God’s beautiful design. It helps us slow down and notice, wonder, explore, investigate and question,” offered Charlotte’s mother, Brigit Sorrells.

Sorrells continued, “We also get to connect with friends who value the world in a similar way, but who also bring their own expertise, observations and insights.”

"Catching tadpoles and fairy shrimp, climbing trees, going to the pond, digging burrows and making friends,” topped the charts for Ellie Nelson, age 8. Ellie gushes, “I changed my mind . . . I love everything! It's the best day of the week! When are we going again?”

Ellie’s sister Hazel, age 6, pipes in, "I love all the pond monsters, and my friends." Ellie and Hazel are joined by little brother Henry, age 4.

“Children learn best when they are engaged,” explains Brezie Nelson, mother of Ellie, Hazel and Henry. “Sit a kid outside and let them learn, and they will show you the world around them. Barefoot gives us the opportunity every week to meet with friends, spend time outdoors and teach each other. The sheer excitement from seeing a live fairy shrimp or every stage in a frog's life cycle, that they captured themselves, keeps them engaged and asking for more.”

“For three weeks now, we have discussed the life cycle of frogs, their place in the ecosystem, how pollution affects their development, how invasive species can help or harm them, and the importance of one tiny being in a community. Ellie told me yesterday that something small can make a big difference in the world, and that one tiny frog can save her from thousands of mosquito bites. All from playing in the pond,” Nelson said.

Nelson offers a quote from Dr. Karyn Purvis, "Scientists have discovered that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain, unless it is done with play, in which case it only takes 10 to 20 repetitions."

Nelson expounds on the thought: “Now take that play outdoors . . . and it becomes a core memory. My husband also comes with us most weeks. Now we're making these core memories and learning as a family. This is what homeschool is about to us, and Barefoot helps with that.”

Community, learning and fun are echoed by each parent and leader. Key developmental areas are strengthened through Barefoot. “The program is child led and encourages exploration, make-believe and risk taking, all of which are developmentally necessary for kids to grow and develop in self-awareness and confidence,” Kelley shares, adding that these are excellent ways to support home school families.

“It’s quite the community we have through our Barefoot group, I wouldn’t trade it,” exclaims Sorrells.

Rregistration for Barefoot University is through Enrollment for fall beings April 15.