It was a cool, muddy morning in March when I pulled into the empty parking lot of a sprawling forest and nature preserve about 40 miles outside of Fort Worth, Texas. Soon, cars began arriving, filled with exuberant children of all ages, and their parents, who were ready to spend a few hours together in the woods. Donned in rain boots and parkas, these nearly three-dozen nature-goers were part of Barefoot University, a rapidly expanding national network of forest school programs for homeschoolers that was founded by Madeleine Braden and Amber Brown in 2019.
Braden and Brown are two homeschooling mothers who wanted to get their children out in nature. They connected over Facebook, both sharing a fledgling interest in starting a forest school. Through social media, they found other homeschooling families in the Dallas/Fort Worth area who also liked the idea of regular nature time with their children.
What began as a weekly outdoor meet-up with a handful of local families has now become Barefoot University, a national, non-profit forest school that reaches over 3,000 learners in six states, with nine states set for next year.
“The importance of getting outside once a week is absolutely invaluable,” Braden told me when I visited one of the many Barefoot University groups in Texas. Each forest school has 35 homeschooled children and their parents who make a yearlong commitment to gather together each week in public parks, nature preserves, forests or hiking trails, and participate in shared activities around a general theme.
This year’s theme is Rhythm: Fire, and the high-quality nature curriculum that Braden and Brown have created includes a guidebook and nature journal for each learner with lessons such as how to identify edible plants, tie knots, make a fire, or purify water in the woods.
“Building communities of being outside in nature with your friends and your kids, that’s the goal,” Braden told me, adding that even though the forest school only meets once a week, deep friendships are often formed that lead to other gatherings and excursions throughout the week.
Spreading mostly through word of mouth, Barefoot University has attracted group leaders throughout Texas, as well as Tennessee, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Connecticut. Prospective guides go through an application process with training and background checks, and then are ready to launch their programs. There is no cost to the guides to become part of the Barefoot University network, and each family pays about $75 a year to participate for two to three hours a week for 36 weeks, plus a $25 annual materials fee for each child. Braden and Brown say they intentionally keep the cost low to enable wide access to the program, acknowledging that many homeschooling families operate on one income. They also provide scholarships for families in financial need.
Forest schools and nature-based education programs had been expanding over the past decade, but the education disruption caused by school shutdowns and remote learning beginning in 2020 accelerated interest in all kinds of schooling alternatives, including homeschooling. Homeschooling numbers skyrocketed during the first two years of the Covid response, and still remain well above pre-pandemic levels in many areas.
Texas has also seen its homeschooling numbers rise in recent years, contributing to the increased demand for programs like Barefoot University, which serves approximately 1,000 students in the greater Dallas/Fort Worth area alone. “We have so many homeschoolers in Dallas/Fort Worth that it makes it easy,” said Braden about the growth of Barefoot University groups in her local area.
Much of Barefoot University’s expansion is now occurring outside of Texas, with a flood of applications coming in from prospective group leaders across the country. Braden and Brown expect interest in Barefoot University to continue to climb, even as they remain thoughtful about ensuring ongoing quality as their program scales.
Ultimately, these two entrepreneurs hope Barefoot University will be available to all who want it, including non-homeschoolers and even adults and senior citizens. “We want to be as big as Boy Scouts, be that kind of a household name,” said Braden. With more individuals and families looking for greater connection to others and to nature, Barefoot University is well-positioned to become the national leader in community-based forest schools.
To hear more about Braden and Brown’s journey toward creating Barefoot University, listen to the latest episode of the LiberatED Podcast:
Image: Madeleine Braden is the cofounder, along with Amber Brown, of Barefoot University. (Photo: Kerry McDonald)
Kerry McDonald is a Senior Education Fellow at FEE and host of the weekly LiberatED podcast. She is also the author of Unschooled: Raising Curious, Well-Educated Children Outside the Conventional Classroom (Chicago Review Press, 2019), an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, education policy fellow at State Policy Network, and a regular Forbes contributor. Kerry has a B.A. in economics from Bowdoin College and an M.Ed. in education policy from Harvard University. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children. You can sign up for her weekly email newsletter here.