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Charlie Foster

Charlie and his wife co-founded Brooklyn Forest School to share their love of the outdoors and the importance of play-based learning for young children.

Photography by John Peabody @thehandandeye

Charlie tell us a little bit about yourself.

I'm a nature lover who believes that cities are the future. 

You and your wife, Joylynn Holder, run a program called Brooklyn Forest. Tell us about that.

Joylynn and I grew up together going to a school that took us outside every day -- playing, hiking, gardening, singing seasonal songs. When we became parents, those traditions and values became important to us again and we started a forest school for a handful of children and their parents. Word got out, and the school grew. In the past three years, over a thousand families have joined the weekly classes we hold in Brooklyn, Manhattan and San Francisco. 

What do you hope to achieve with Brooklyn Forest? 

In a single class, we're not trying to achieve all that much -- maybe make some mud pies, spot a few chipmunks, enjoy some homemade bread and tea. But over the course of a season these simple experiences add up to a real relationship with the park for the children. The parents meanwhile are seeing how their children thrive outdoors, and perhaps even awakening their own connection to nature. What we're trying to do in the long run is to start an urban forest school movement that's based on these rich relationships to city parks, one that sets new expectations for bringing nature into the daily lives of schoolchildren. It sounds audacious, but it's starting to happen.

In a single class, we're not trying to achieve all that much -- maybe make some mud pies, spot a few chipmunks, enjoy some homemade bread and tea. But over the course of a season these simple experiences add up to a real relationship with the park for the children.

Charlie Foster

Can you share one of your favorite spots in New York City parks with us?

The Nethermead is a quiet meadow on the east side of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. It's bordered by a wooded area called the Ravine and a lazy stream called the Lullwater. It encapsulates Frederick Law Olmstead's three major elements for the park: woods, water and meadows. It's beautiful, the perfect classroom. 

Aside from running Brooklyn Forest, you’re also an award-winning journalist. Can you tell us about your background in journalism?

I have a degree in science and another in journalism, so I am by training very skeptical and data-obssesed. When writing about the issues that interest me most -- those of young people and the environment -- my approach is to combine investigation with first-person narrative.  The work I'm most proud of is a series of NPR stories I produced by teaming up with teenagers who had lived through horrible abuses but still had the strength to tell their stories and seek out justice. 

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Were there lessons you learned working with kids in radio and Brooklyn Forest?

Respect -- children of all ages need more of it. Young children thrive when you give them the freedom to play and to develop their imaginations. Teenagers thrive when you respect them enough to listen and give them real responsibilities. The idea that we can mold children into a particular kind of adult is wrong and probably harmful. I think as adults, we should try instead to just set a good example and maybe, if we can, to inspire. 

OK, and you’re also a musician as well! Can you tell us about that?

I've always been in one band or another. I'm in one now with a bunch of other journalists. We're called the Sequoias. If bands were judged on their journalism, we'd be the greatest band in America. Instead, they're judged on how they sound, which I guess is only fair. I also write songs. I'm working on a project to write a song about every bird in Central Park.

 

How important is song and music in Brooklyn Forest?

Song is the glue that holds forest school together -- we sing almost everything we do. The way it guides the children through their work and play is almost magical. For adults, singing helps build a sense of togetherness, and even friendship. Joylynn often says, "You can't sing in a public park with strangers."

What are you reading these days? Favorite Book?

I've always got one novel and one nonfiction book going at a time. Right now it's The Submission by Amy Waldman and The Bird by Colin Tudge. I learned that reading habit from Michael Pollan, who also wrote my favorite book, The Botany of Desire

And what are you listening to? Any good podcasts?

Like everyone, I was hooked on "Serial" this fall. "Song Exploder" is another great new podcast.

Finally, what do you think of the Wool & Prince Gear?

Running a forest school, you automatically become an advocate for wool -- it's just the best material for being outdoors. Still, I didn't know wool shirts could look and feel like the buttoned-down shirts I'm accustomed to. Wool&Prince's shirts are incredibly soft and lightweight, but also durable. And they don't wrinkle, which amazes me as someone who's constantly rolling up his sleeves.

Charlie is 6 ft, 160 lbs, and wears a size S.

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