In just five years, a homeschool group in Texas grew from three to over 3,000 students across six different states – thanks to a little research and initiative from two moms.
One of them, Amber Brown, wanted to homeschool her two youngest children with an outdoor educational approach. She reached out to a Dallas-area Facebook group, where Madeleine Braden joined her in helping establish Barefoot University in 2019.
The program’s aim is to connect children to nature using forest school principles for child-led outdoor exploration and nature-based skills, according to its website. Families meet weekly and can choose to help their community through service projects.
“We’re producing out-of-the-box thinkers,” Braden said to Fox News. “Most of our teenagers that are in our groups are already taking college courses.”
‘We want to be really affordable’
Forest schools are sometimes thought of as too expensive for lower income households. Barefoot University, however, has set its yearly enrollment at $75 per family. It also charges a $25 supply fee for every attending child 5 years and older.
“We know a lot of home-schooling families are a one-income household and are doing the best they can to be able to homeschool,” Brown said. “So we want to be really affordable.”
The program also invites families experiencing financial hardships to apply for scholarships, which have closed for the 2023-2024 school year.
Barefoot University’s success comes against a backdrop of increasing interest in public education alternatives.
Enrollment in public schools dropped nationwide by 1.3 million students from fall 2019 to fall 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Meanwhile, enrollment in Catholic schools and homeschooling increased dramatically.
Brown attended public school and wanted a different experience for her children.
“They’re experiencing free play, they’re experiencing risk and they’re still learning,” she said.
Brown also wanted students to learn primarily through play and nature exploration.
“All of those benefits of play, they don’t end just because you turn 5 or 7,” she said. “That’s something you can benefit from way into adulthood.”
Program methods and instruction
Each Barefoot University community has a team of volunteer parents to lead it. If families can’t find a community in their area, the program offers resources and support to help create one.
Families meet 36 weeks each year, consisting of three 12-week cycles focusing on different aspects of nature.
Children also learn according to age-appropriate milestones.
For example, children ages 5-8 focus on exploration and observation. Those who are 9-13 build their skills in analysis and navigation. Students who are 14 and older focus on practical application and independent learning.
“We believe parents are the teachers, so our activities are designed to be a starting point for your family to explore more,” the program’s website explains. “Community leaders facilitate activities but we leave the learning to the kids and teaching to the parents.”
Participants also receive nature journals and access to a members section on the website with extra activity ideas and lessons for each weekly theme.
“We want to connect them to nature for all the benefits that nature has,” Brown said. “And we want to connect them to each other, so they have community.”