See adorable photos of 7 'forest schools' from around the country.

Ahh, there’s nothing better than some time with Mother Nature.

Breathing the fresh air, being unplugged and disconnected, experiencing the peacefulness of the outdoors ... it’s pretty fantastic.

When kids go outside and play in nature, there are real benefits to both physical health and emotional well-being. The only problem is, kids are spending less time in nature and more time hooked up to their tablets, smartphones, and video games.


Maybe it’s time to put down that device and take a walk in the woods!

That's why in Denmark, “forest kindergartens” have scrapped the traditional preschool classroom.

These schools take kids back into nature, allowing them to learn through free play and exploration. And this less structured preschool setup seems to be working. According to a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Danish schools outperformed American schools in math and science.

Luckily, Danes aren’t the only ones taking early childhood education back into nature.

There is a growing movement of forest schools right here in the United States as well. Here are just a few of them (and they’re all pretty awesome).

1. Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten (Vashon, Washington)

Kids at Cedarsong head off to another adventure in the forest. Photo by Cedarsong Nature School used with permission

In a typical preschool, you'd likely see a plethora of brightly colored toys, a water/sand table (my personal favorite), puzzles, blocks, and if you’re lucky, an outdoor playground. Basically, you’d never run out of activities to do.

Well, at Cedarsong Nature School, things are just a little bit different. Cedarsong believes in an unstructured immersion in nature. This means there is no set agenda, projects, or teacher direction. Cedarsong sees a value in just being in nature, not necessarily even needing to “do” anything.

Building a "dam" in the mud. Photo by Cedarsong Nature School, used with permission

At Cedarsong Nature School, kids are encouraged to explore, ask questions, cooperate with one another, and take moderate risks to build self-confidence. Teachers guide students in their curiosity about nature, but don’t hover over the kids or monitor their every move.

2. Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center (Mystic, Connecticut)

Who needs a tablet when you have a forest? (And a bunny!) Photos by Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center, used with permission

The Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center preschool certainly lives up to its motto: “nature is our niche.” The preschool is situated on a 400-acre nature preserve, complete with meadows, ponds, hiking trails, and plenty of rocks and trees to climb on. They consider these grounds to be a “living classroom,” which is a pretty cool concept!

The DPNC Nature Preschool has turned down offers to create a structured "nature playground." They believe that nature creates its own playground, where children can create their imaginative, limitless fun.

3. Little Tree Huggers (Leesburg, Virginia)

Making new friends at Little Tree Huggers. Photo by Heaton Johnsonm used with permission

At Little Tree Huggers, children not only learn about math and language arts, but are also immersed in Spanish and exposed to German and Italian. However, what truly sets LTH apart from a “normal” preschool is that most instruction takes place outdoors in a natural environment surrounded farm animals.

Kids and chickens, what better combination? Photo by Heaton Johnson, used with permission

Children have the freedom to choose their playtime activities, which might include interacting with animals, making paintings with natural materials, or listening to the sounds of nature from the Little Tree Huggers observation deck. There is an emphasis on sustainability, teaching kids from a young age how to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

4. Worldmind Nature Immersion School (Denver, Colorado)

A little snow and ice can't keep these kids from having fun. Photo by Worldmind School, used with permission

Located in Colorado, Worldmind Nature Immersion School has its fair share of extreme weather. But no matter the season, one thing remains the same. Kids spend the entire day outside — they don’t even have an indoor facility!

Tree trunk too high? Not for these kids! Photo by Worldmind School, used with permission

School classes are held entirely on public land, exploring open space and city parks to connect children to the ecology of where they live. If there is extremely severe weather, they’ll explore indoor places, such as the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, to enhance their learning of the natural world. Worldmind School provides an informal setting for learning to naturally occur during free outdoor playtime.

5. Nature Preschool at Irvine (Owings Mills, Maryland)

Catching butterflies or going for a hike sure beats the classroom. Photo by Nature Preschool at Irvine, used with permission

At the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center, teachers act as guides, allowing children to venture out and discover the magic of nature in unstructured nature play. Children develop responsibility and independence through everything they do, from putting their own boots on to composting an apple to feeding the birds.

While the learning here takes place almost entirely in nature, it is licensed by the state of Maryland and accredited by the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children), showing that these nature-immersion schools still provide a strong foundation. However, Irvine Nature Preschool doesn’t rush or force the learning process; it allows children to learn and develop at their own natural pace.

6. Mother Earth School (Portland, Oregon)

Learning how to use (real) tools. Photo by Mother Earth School, used with permission

At Mother Earth School, children play in a grove of cedar trees, the perfect backdrop for free play. Kids use their imagination to make the forest come to life. Who needs plastic toys (or any toys, really), when you can make a tree branch become a fishing pole or turn a log into a train?

There's plenty of time for free play each day, in addition to time spent making natural arts and crafts. Kids here begin learning how to carve wood with real Swiss-made knives at the age of four (um, I can’t do that, and I’m an adult) — talk about fine motor skills!

During snack time, kids help to build the fire and then get to enjoy organic snacks cooked on a rocket stove and bread baked fresh in a cob oven. This sounds a whole lot more exciting than the Nilla wafers I ate from a box (which were admittedly delicious) during my preschool years!

7. Berkeley Forest School (Berkeley, California)

Forget electronics. Trees are all these kids need! Photo by Berkeley Forest School, used with permission

While there is a daily routine at Berkeley Forest School, no two days end up the same. The discoveries kids make on their daily adventures provide inspiration for sensory-based learning activities. A typical day includes observing wildlife and journaling about the findings, building swings and shelters in the woods, and building and cooking on an open fire.

Look at that concentration! Photo by Berkeley Forest School, used with permission

The forest school movement is continuing to expand in the United States (and around the world), taking kids out of structured classroom and back into nature.

Hooray for forest schools! Photos by Nature Preschool at Irvine used with permission

Judging by the looks on these kids faces, it seems like these programs are doing something (perhaps almost everything) right!

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Simon & Garfunkel's song "Bridge Over Troubled Water" has been covered by more than 50 different musical artists, from Aretha Franklin to Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson. It's a timeless classic that taps into the universal struggle of feeling down and the comfort of having someone to lift us up. It's beloved for its soothing melody and cathartic lyrics, and after a year of pandemic challenges, it's perhaps more poignant now than ever.

A few years a go, American singer-songwriter Yebba Smith shared a solo a capella version of a part of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," in which she just casually sits and sings it on a bed. It's an impressive rendition on its own, highlighting Yebba's soulful, effortless voice.

But British singer Jacob Collier recently added his own layered harmony tracks to it, taking the performance to a whole other level.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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