Blue Ridge Forest School Entrepreneur Profile

January 30, 2019

Jessica Kiley is owner of Blue Ridge Forest School, a 100% outdoor program for preschoolers and kindergartners in Charlottesville. Two mornings a week they head into the forest to play, explore, experiment, and grow in the richest classroom of all. A forest classroom can meet young children’s developmental needs more deeply and authentically than an indoor classroom because it is dynamic and constantly changing with the seasons, the terrain is uneven, and the materials are open-ended and soothing to the senses, allowing for limitless possibilities for engagement (without needing to be careful of the furniture!). Forest nursery schools exist all over the world and research shows that children who are regularly able to have these rich outdoor social experiences have better physical development, neurological integration, academic skills, social skills, risk-management, and are more creative.

Jessica was working as a school psychologist and had spent years studying child development when she had her first child six years ago. Despite this background, she feels she was caught completely off-guard when she found herself with an exceptionally vibrant, ACTIVE toddler. She bounced off the walls in every sense of the phrase, but when they were outside, it was as if she was a different child. She was focused, curious, and even played more harmoniously with her buddies. This inspired Jessica to create a little outdoor preschool program in her neighborhood using the forested trail system as their classroom, and the waitlist grew and grew. The parents loved it, the kids loved it, and she loved it. She soon discovered that this outdoor format to early education is a well-established world-wide movement that she has since drawn from to inform her program. Last year she moved the program to beautiful, diverse, Ivy Creek Natural Area, added more teaching assistants, and her waitlist continues to grow.

Over the next few years, Jessica aims to continue her forest mornings for preschoolers, while eventually adding more locations, days, and teachers to meet the demand. She explains that, “I’d love to create scholarships and partner with local preschools to bring children into nature as a supplement to their full-time program (for parents that work full-time), while also creating after-school nature-based enrichment programs in partnership with local public elementary schools”. She is currently involved with a small group of teachers spear-heading the Virginia chapter of the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS) in order to advance the field in Virginia and beyond. She is also helping bring a nature-based professional development teacher-training to Wildrock in Crozet (another CIC business!) this April 2019 where her co-teachers and she, along with other professionals in the field, will lead workshops and discussions for early childhood educators across the east coast. She hopes to continue taking on more leadership and professional development roles in the field in the future.

Jessica was part of the spring 2018 CIC Entrepreneur Workshop as she was preparing to transform her little neighborhood program into Blue Ridge Forest School. While she was a student in the Entrepreneur Workshop with the wonderful Barbara Kessler as her workgroup leader, she became an official business, hired another teacher, presented at the Tom Tom Founder’s Crowdfunded Pitch Night, showcased at the Charlottesville City Market, and plotted out the financial pieces that, she feels “will allow me to make this a viable, long-term endeavor”. Jessica feels that previously she had just been “winging it” year to year, following her passion while feeling overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle all the business-related tasks in running her own program. She explains that, “CIC was absolutely key in giving me the tools, support, education, and confidence to take this leap in order to grow a sustainable program while financially supporting my family. I used to think of the “business world” and my passion for nature-based early childhood education as intrinsically at odds with each other, but CIC opened my eyes to a principled, uplifting, heart-centered approach to business that I am so very grateful for. Turns out this “Type B” tree-hugger truly enjoys business development! Who would have thought?!”

Since graduating from the Entrepreneur Workshop, Jessica has joined a monthly Small Business Circle of CIC graduates from previous workshops that are all at different stages of business development. She feels this group has been a tremendous support network and resource this past year, allowing her to see what is to come as she continues on her business journey, while helping her sustain the CIC-inspired momentum long after graduation. She also has a CIC mentor, Robin Kaczka, who she meets with monthly. Jessica claims that Robin has given her endless personalized support, helping her goal-set while providing guidance on how to lead others as a program director. Jessica also explains that the seasonal CIC Resource Fairs with tax specialists, attorneys, and other business professionals have also been incredibly helpful. She feels, “The support, connections, and resources just continue to grow long after graduation, and now I’m excited to be a workgroup leader for the upcoming spring cohort”! Jessica feels incredibly honored and excited for the opportunity to support the next generation of CIC entrepreneurs.

Jessica’s advice to incoming CIC entrepreneurs is to, “Just say yes to the opportunities offered to you during the workshop and afterward. Yes to branching out with homework assignments. Yes to applying for the Tom Tom Festival’s Crowdfunded Pitch Night. Yes to showcasing at the Charlottesville City Market. Yes to connecting with your workgroup. Yes to asking for more support during CIC’s office hours. Yes to attending the Resource Fairs. Yes to joining a Small Business Circle after graduation. Yes yes yes! It’s a rare opportunity to be a part of such an amazing program, so take advantage”!