Charged with excitement, several of the first-graders got on all fours and smashed through the new snow. Others several yards away draped over a bowed tree, their classmates getting low-low-lower to pass underneath. And nearby several more kids grabbed sticks and held court on their sacred ground. Their twiggy lean-to was only limited by their imaginations.

What was happening was more than kids running wild — it was kids, by design, doing nothing. Unprescribed play in nature. They were free to get snowy, free to hang on trees, free to turn their discoveries on the earth’s floor into whatever, all with the few adults present purposefully hands-off.

Anna Sharratt was one of them, dressed for the weather in a warm sweater, buff and sturdy overalls. And these kids were participants in the quest she is leading, Free Forest School, set in motion on this December morning at Dowling Elementary School in Minneapolis.

Dowling is an environmental magnet school, but Sharratt’s idea of free play in the natural world — kids leading the play — is new terrain in Bejay Johnson’s class of city kids. Sure, they get regular recess, but this test run in a school setting was different. Messy is OK.

“Nice job keeping your stick on the ground,” Sharratt called out to one boy, while others swung theirs in the air at things only they could see.

Johnson said her students look forward to Sharratt’s weekly visit (“a different kind of play”), and what it means: 60 minutes in the school’s little slice of woodland, the Nature Acre. What’s more, the free time has changed them, she said. They sense that they’re in charge, and they are engaged, more confident, and more curious.

“I see many of the students trying new things and making new discoveries,” the teacher said.

Sharratt’s idea of play is something she says today’s children need and don’t get enough of. Her dream is to see a forest kindergarten footprint in schools, but it’s play groups made up of parents (or caregivers) and their young children that are the backbone of her grass-roots movement. Social media has been the catalyst, where the desire for reconnecting with nature in our modern world has found an echo among families.

Free Forest School is white-hot across North America, with the Twin Cities one of its newer anchor points. There currently are more than a dozen play groups that make up Free Forest School-Twin Cities, mushrooming out from a network of 60 other Free Forest School locations across North America. Sharratt said that worldwide, there were 34 requests to start new locations since the beginning of the year, some from Australia, Turkey and Singapore.

Before it had a name and a board of directors, Free Forest School was embodied in ideas Sharratt had as a parent to her children, Miles and Ellen (now 6 and 4). While living in Brooklyn in 2015, she said she discovered a small nature play group in Queens that inspired her to try her own version. One night she started a Facebook page called Free Forest School. By the morning, she said, it had attracted 100 members.

Sharratt said she recruited people to continue the group before her family moved cross-country to Austin, Texas. She helped Free Forest School ignite there, too, before a return to where she grew up: the Twin Cities. At last check, the Austin school had nearly 3,900 members in its Facebook group.

Young lives at stake

Free Forest School’s far-reaching popularity transcends place. There is something deeply personal going on among an increasing number of parents, said Katy Smith, a former Minnesota Teacher of the Year who specializes in early childhood education.

“Kids aren’t going to be their best selves growing up with their eyes on screens, and time outdoors is an afterthought,” said Smith, of Winona.

These concerns about the shaping of young lives aren’t new but heightened. Sharratt’s tone carries an urgency — time spent in the outdoors is a foundation young lives need to build upon. There is overwhelming research of nature's benefits at any age. In our tech-saturated culture, nature is the great grounding agent, good for body and mind.

The nonprofit Children & Nature Network is focused on that connection. Its co-founder, Richard Louv, wrote famously of the “nature-deficit disorder” among kids in his 2005 bestseller “Last Child in the Woods.” Children, he emphasized, need the stimulation of regular time in the outdoors to sharpen the emotional and mental tools they need to succeed as adolescents, and beyond. Research shows again and again that they aren’t getting enough of that exposure.

Results of a study published in the Journal of Pediatrics in 2017 supported emerging evidence that more than five hours of any daily screen time is linked to child obesity. The American Academy of Pediatrics went further, warning last November that screen time puts children at risk of sleep and school problems, too. A group called Common Sense Media reported that children up to age 8 are spending an average of 2 hours, 19 minutes, mainly watching videos on smartphones or tablets. It concluded there is “clear evidence that the mobile media revolution has taken hold in the lives of young children.”

Feeding kids play

Sharratt doesn’t want nature to be something people do, so much as something that is intuitively part of their lives. She wants nature to be part of the kids’ metabolism, with no barriers (i.e., money, location, physical ability) to play unimpeded.

“[Nature] is not something we take trips into, and it’s this big, stressful and exciting experience but, rather, we are at home here,” Sharratt said. “This is our place. We belong here.”

In a Free Forest play group, it might appear kids are running pell-mell, Sharratt said, but in doing so they learn to problem-solve, interact with others, and build confidence and trust. Their parents gain, too. Programmed in today’s multi-tasking culture to schedule and manage kids, parents learn things in seeing them transformed, Sharratt said. And there is no judging — what families at the play groups and in the online community find is support.

“The idea is to show parents this is something they can do themselves and really teach to observe their children and build trust with their children,” Sharratt said. “I value the experience in nature, but I see it even more valuable as a tool where everything is stripped away.”

Parents benefit from the pared-down Free Forest environment, Smith said.

“Folks who are raising kids are feeling so isolated and so screen-dependent that they are longing for something else,” Smith said. “Nature is such as great way to connect, right? You don’t have clean your house, you don’t have to plan a meal. You just meet up and come as you are, and take on the space.”

Merideth Ludwig of south Minneapolis is one of more than 2,500 members in the school’s Twin Cities Facebook group. A parent volunteer, too, she recently led a group of several families that meets at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. It was a Thursday morning, cold and bright, and the refuge beckoned. Being intentional about getting outdoors was something Ludwig was doing with her kids when she and Sharratt connected online and joined forces in 2016.

“It’s become a way of life for us,” said Ludwig, whose two boys, Christian, 4, and Simon, 2, looked right at home in the woodland. “We realize the importance, and continue to make sure we get outside and be around others who want to do that, as well.”

While the meetups pivot on freedom, Sharratt has bedrock rules for starting new groups: Groups need to meet once a week year-round, and commit to the same location. How better to reap the benefits of witnessing the breadth and beauty of an environment over time? Too, the familiarity with a certain place might just create tomorrow’s conservationists. “Rather than a new adventure each week, we see the value of them going back to the same place with new adventures there,” Sharratt said.

A new fearlessness

Katja Manrodt of Maple Grove heard of the play groups through Facebook. She takes her daughter, Eliana, 2 ½, to a group that meets weekly at Eastman Nature Center in Osseo.

Like Ludwig, Manrodt is a parent facilitator. She helps keep the weekly gatherings on track. She rotates in the role with other regular attendees. Five to 15 families, each with one or two children from newborn to age 6, attend any given week. Eliana has stepped up, too, showing a new fearlessness. At first, her mom said, she was nervous to step over sticks, and she wanted to be held.

After several sessions, Eliana opened to her new surroundings like a flower unfurling. She no longer stopped to ask for help. She found a way to climb over logs by herself, and “did a pretty good job of being safe,” Manrodt said.

The benefits extend to mom, too. “It’s given me a lot of trust in her,” said Manrodt, 31, who has seen the same transformation in other kids — and their parents.

Empowered by her Finnish mother, Manrodt said she was constantly outdoors, regardless of weather. There was a Minnesota backyard full of trees. She caught crayfish in a creek, or brought a pet rabbit on her adventures. And she wanted to give that to her own child.

“I do not remember being supervised,” Manrodt said. “I remember being safe. My parents would always check on me. I don’t remember having an adult hovering over me, telling me what I could play with, what I couldn’t play with, what I was supposed to do. There was no agenda to my play.

“A lot of it was independent play, which I think is valuable for kids to develop for their own problem-solving,” she said.

Changing society

Sharratt could have been Manrodt’s playmate. She grew up a stone’s throw from Minnehaha Creek near Lake Hiawatha, and was used to getting dirty. There were canoe and car-camping trips. Later, as a young woman, she climbed mountains and guided in the backcountry with Outward Bound and Passages Northwest in Seattle.

Now, what Sharratt wants for Miles and Ellen, she wants for her community, for the kids tumbling out of their Dowling classroom, for the little Elianas boldly climbing over logs.

“It might look very simple and basic to play in the woods,” Sharratt said, “but I really think that transforming how we start with our kids is going to have a big effect on our society.”

Smith, the specialist on young families and children, agreed. She also challenged those who’d diminish the benefits of free play vs. something in a traditional setting that claims to be more purposeful or have more educational value.

“[Free play in nature] needs to have a new Renaissance — letting kids just be, and be outside largely unsupervised. Which is terrifying for most people,” Smith said.

“I don’t think there needs to be a line that one is better. They have different focuses, but there is room for all of it.”