We find out how a Natural Science School on a Farmstead for preschoolers, homeschoolers and "Nature Geeks" came to be.
ASHEVILLE, North Carolina -- “We send your kids home tired and dirty.”
That’s the promise parents get when they sign their children up for Two Sisters Farmstead School.
Located just 15 minutes west of Asheville in the idyllic setting of Candler, North Carolina, this non-profit school operates as a childcare center, camp and special resource for homeschoolers.
The 25-acre rainbow-shaped property is set against the rural backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains with hiking trails, a creek, a spring, gardens and endless outdoor space for children to run wild, learn about nature and get lost in their imaginations.
Founded by long-time friends and inspired educators Jessica Potter-Bowers, M.Ed., and Lauren Brown, M.Ed., these two enthusiastic self-proclaimed nature geeks have left their “real jobs” (with all their perks) behind them to help children reconnect with nature through adventurous education.
How to start a Farmstead School
JP and Lauren met in 2011 at a non-profit management class in Bainbridge Island, Washington. It was there their original business plan for a farm school, known then as “Sprout,” was written.
When JP returned to her hometown of Asheville, she reworked the plan and began building relationships in the home school community.
When Lauren decided to move to Asheville, "Sprout" became "Two Sisters"and - after 5 years of planning - the search for land was on.
“We were never really worried about putting together the curriculum,” Lauren says. “We always knew the kids would have an amazing learning experience once we got them here.”
“It’s the planning, getting them signed up and all the other details that go into starting up a school - that’s the hard part.”
Two Sisters started up this summer by offering camps, Free Play Fridays and Family Discovery Days. They’re officially beginning their preschool and homeschooling natural science programs this fall.
What is a typical day like for preschoolers at the farmstead school?
Though there is always a daily cycle planned, there is no “typical” day at Two Sisters (especially for the “Sprouts”/preschoolers)…and that is a deliberate part of their programs.
“We try to have them outside 90 percent of the time. A lot of times when the kids get here for the first time they’ll try to go inside,” Lauren says. “We have to redirect them and say, ‘Hey we’re out here!’ They’re just used to going indoors for lessons.”
The day usually starts with greetings and unstructured play, followed by circle time where they review the week’s theme, sing songs, tell a story and check the weather. Then it’s off to explore various areas of the property, like the garden, the appropriately-named “Fortville,” the trails, the chicken coop or the creek.
As Lauren explains below, they aim to be flexible in their daily cycles based on the children’s interests and engagement:
“Today we spent an hour and 20 minutes playing in a creek. They caught seven salamanders and a bunch of crayfish. We had on today’s schedule to go on a big hike, but they were so enamored with the creek, why on earth would we move them?
“We’ll let them stay and play. If they’re entertained and productive with their imaginations, we’d let them stay in one place 4 hours. We have no agenda other than to keep them outside and teach them about nature.”
The days are rightly more structured for the older homeschool science students, but even then the teachers are comfortable going “off script” when a natural learning opportunity arises.
“We have plans in place in case the children don’t engage in something, but we’re happy for those plans to go out the window when needed,” JP says, “and then we can use them the next day.
“We try not to dictate the play, we just let that happen. And that’s such an important part of the unstructured play that kids just don’t get any more.”
Fulfilling a Need for Homeschoolers
One of the unique aspects of Two Sisters is their natural science enrichment programs for homeschooling families called “Explorers.”
JP, who has taught extensively in homeschool co-ops throughout the years, explains how their programs are designed to fulfill a huge need:
“It’s common for homeschoolers to outsource enrichment subjects such as science, math and foreign languages, but there’s not a lot of other people offering science, especially natural science.”
The science programs not only give homeschool teachers some much-needed support, but they also help the students get into college.
“A lot of homeschoolers are really great candidates for college but they need a transcript. So we created our high school level class based on the state standards,” JP explains. “That way we can provide them with that transcript and an exceptional natural science education.”
Based on seasonal topics, the Explorers programs run one day per week for 11-12 week in Two Sisters’ outdoor classroom.
Through the natural science program, homeschoolers learn about biology, horticulture, gardening, geology, permaculture, animal husbandry, organic chemistry and a variety of other seasonal topics.
“Our big thing here is that we teach natural science, so even at camp we don’t spend a lot of time sitting and learning,” JP says. “We are definitely teaching them natural science concepts hands-on.”
Learning with Plants and Animals
A big part of the farmstead schools is, of course, the farm.
Right now the school is home to a young flock of chickens and a large permaculture fruit, vegetable and herb garden. They also plan on raising goats and other livestock and expanding the garden throughout the seasons.
The children are involved in and learn from caring for the animals, gardens and grounds based on their age and abilities.
And the farmstead setting offers endless learning opportunities: “See there’s a learning opportunity right here,” JP says, looking down at a pair of drooping tomato plants. “I know you shouldn’t plant nightshade vegetables together, but the kids don’t know that. So we’ll dig these up, and replant them a couple times and see if they can figure it out together.”
In addition to the farm and outdoor classroom, the property houses a stone-built schoolhouse complete with a reading room, science lab, garden kitchen and a great room with a fireplace.
The children are also offered daily open-ended arts and crafts projects to help foster their imagination and balance physical activity.
What do the kids love most about going to school outdoors?
According to Lauren, it depends on the individual child:
“We have a kid who would be happy if we just left him to play with running water all day long! Some kids could spend all day in Fortville building and playing in forts all day.
“We also have a child who really struggles with unstructured time so you have to engage him in something. Then once he’s hooked on it he’s fine, he just needs that initial help. Every kid is different and we honor that.”
For parents, the major draw to the school is that they want their kids to spend more unstructured time playing outdoors—like they did as kids.
Lauren had this to say about the space provided for unstructured play:
“I tell the kids, you are NOT the boss of her play. Because it’s important that they get to experience their individual creative sides. That will be more indirect for the younger kids and more direct for the older kids. We really try to foster that in each child.”
Though Asheville has no shortage of alternative and outdoor schools, Two Sisters has managed to carve out a unique educational opportunity in the community. Both in its approach to nature-based education/camps and its natural science programs for homeschoolers.
As stated on the Two Sisters website: “We envision a community where…each time a child touches nature, nature also touches the child in a way that sparks curiosity and cultivates respect and each time an adult teaches a child, the child also teaches their adult about patience, connection and wonder.”
Judging by the happy, dirty faces of the children enrolled there, their community vision will catch on fast.
To learn more about JP, Lauren and the Two Sisters Farmstead School, or to make a donation, visit them online at: www.twosistersfarmstead.org.
And if you liked this article, you can also read about a farm-based daycare we visited in Jacksonville, Florida, here.
All photos courtesy of Two Sisters Farmstead School.