Outdoor learning programs aim to connect students to nature | News


MADISON, Wis. — For most schools, the past two years have brought a complicated weighing of the risks of being in a classroom: in-person or virtual learning, masks, class sizes, ventilation. But a growing number of schools across the country have sidestepped many of these concerns by leaving the classroom behind.

In La Farge, in the sprawling forest reserve of the Kickapoo Valley, 29 pupils report to school every day and, in addition to a daily siesta, stay outside all day, whatever the weather. .

Kickapoo Valley Forestry School is only in its first year as a full day, full week charter school. Previously, the forest reserve held a weekly outdoor learning program for half a day on Fridays. Outdoor education advocacy group Natural Start Alliance counted 563 outdoor preschools and preschools last year, more than double the number in 2017 – including several daycare, preschool and elementary programs in the Wisconsin.

Every student at Kickapoo Valley Forest School, or KVFS, receives a full rain kit – boots, pants, jacket – and their families receive detailed advice on how to layer children to keep them warm even when the temperature drops well below zero. One student, a 5-year-old girl named Mia Shird, counted four layers of clothing on a 30-degree day in November.

“I have this coat underneath,” she said, unzipping the top of her purple snowsuit to reveal a jacket, also purple, “Under this coat I have this, and this is underneath” , she continued, pointing to a T-shirt and a sweater dress, “and then I have these mittens!”

Kickapoo Valley Reservation director of education Jonel Kiesau said students didn’t quite understand the school’s ethos at first, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

“There were kids going, like, ‘When are we going in?'” she said. “And we were able to say, ‘Well, we’re not. And now they don’t even ask, they love being outside.”

KVFS is a public charter school in the La Farge School District, located in southwestern Wisconsin, about an hour east of La Crosse. Currently, KVFS has spaces for 32 children in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, but will add grade one next year and grade two the following year as current enrollees age.

The course of the school day may vary depending on the environment.

The week before Thanksgiving, the students had to forgo their usual hike — kids typically hike nearly 2 miles a day — because it was deer season and hunters were in the surrounding forest. When children asked about it, as children do, Kiesau explained it in a neutral way.

“In Wisconsin you can hunt deer for nine days right now,” she said. “Because some people like to eat deer. Does your family eat deer? Some families do.”

Much of children’s learning is experiential – they pick up nutshells that have fallen on a walk, for example, and teachers help them turn them into dye to decorate plain white t-shirts . The children’s request to topple an old stump turns into a lesson in how trees – living and dead – fit into the forest ecosystem.

Ximena Puig, a teacher at KVFS whose background is in Waldorf schools, said she has seen children grow in their understanding of the environment in just a few months of school.

“Children who may have picked all the mushrooms we saw at the start are now saying, ‘Miss Ximena, please don’t step back, there’s a little mushroom behind you. Please don’t step on it,’” she said.

They also have more traditional courses. During the morning, teachers will bring blankets or mats and boxes of numbers and letters to help children master basic concepts.

Jason Rood, a student teacher who is assigned to the site as part of his teaching certification, asked a student to choose a number and then sent her to grab that number of sticks and count them back to him. With another, he scanned the letters and sounds.

“It’s the letter Q,” he told Jet Oium, after they probed him together.

“Quinoa!” was Jet’s enthusiastic response.

“Quinoa? Great,” Rood said.

Outdoor education has particular appeal during a pandemic, as research shows that transmission of the coronavirus is much lower outdoors, and children and adults can safely unmask outdoors. Kiesau said that was likely part of the call for some families who signed up this year, the school’s first year.

But when teachers and administrators talk about the benefits of holding classes outdoors, they keep coming back to how it connects children to their environment.

“The love that they begin to develop for their environment, which is essential to our survival as human beings, that our children come to love, appreciate and care for the environment around them, this happens because we’re in it,” says Puig.

Northwest of KVFS, teachers at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Hayward began taking students outside for classes in the spring of 2021, when the school returned to in-person instruction after nearly two semesters of distance learning.

The school has an outdoor space for school ceremonies and traditions that serves as an outdoor classroom. And teachers take their students for walks during class.

Mary Robinson, a grade 9-12 Ojibwe language teacher, said transitioning her students to outdoor learning was easy because Ojibwe started out as a spoken, not written, language. it was therefore natural to practice it while taking walks in nature, in conversation with classmates.

“Especially for Indigenous students, it’s really important for all of us to always be connected to the Earth, the environment, and the outdoors,” she said. “We lost a lot of that going inside.”

She took her classes outdoors throughout last spring and this fall, although she had to cut them back as the temperatures dropped because, as she said, “high school students don’t don’t like to wear coats and boots too much”.

Still, she says, students really like being outdoors. Unlike elementary and middle school students, who have recess, high school students often don’t spend much time outdoors.

“I think it’s a shift that’s going to continue, and not just because of COVID,” said Jessica Hutchinson, superintendent of Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School. “It’s a mental health issue, and not just for the kids, but for the staff. I think it’s therapeutic.”

Teachers at Kickapoo Valley Forest School are seeing a similar effect. They say the behavioral problems are fairly minimal, which they attribute, in part, to the fact that the children are able to expend a lot of energy and move around the forest site more freely during the day.

“Having a space where they can be loud and move and not have to wait in line or sit in an office feels like such a gift,” Puig said. “They are able to move their bodies in any way that is developmentally appropriate.”

Kiesau and Robin Hosemann, KVFS’ deputy planning and leadership coordinator, conducted site visits to other forestry schools around the state to see what they can learn from more established outdoor programs. They also want to bring educators curious about outdoor education to their own site, in hopes that more schools will incorporate outdoor learning.

It’s something Robinson at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School thinks possible even for schools that don’t have a forest available to them — though she has a handy tip for schools that want to try.

“They would need portable radios,” she said. “It sounds ridiculous, but being able to communicate with staff outside the building is definitely a security issue, so having that in place is a big deal.”

After that, however, she said teachers need to have pretty good control of their lessons and have clear expectations for students.

“The lesson plans, all of these things still need to be in place,” she said. “That mentality of: we’re learning on the outside today, we’re still going to cover the material, it’s still going to be academically focused, but we’re going to go out and have a different environment for that.”


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