Taking the School to the Forest: a Public School Plan to Use the Forest as a Classroom
This story was first published in The Herald of Randolph, in the June 7, 2018, edition.
It smells like lemongrass and peppermint oil in the fourth-grade classroom at Sharon Elementary School. The children’s pants are tucked into their socks, with their necks or hair covered with bandanas. They are in the midst of their “week in the woods,” and excitement is palpable.
One student is sitting in front of the classroom, sharing his knowledge of bees. As soon as he is done, a classmate raises her hand “I am so excited to go in the woods today, we are going to finish our shelter, and everyone will be able to see it,” she exclaims.
With evident enthusiasm, the rest of the class starts sharing progress on their own shelters. The brouhaha continues as Meg Hopkins, the fourth-grade teacher, explains that it might rain and she hopes that the students have brought adequate attire. Regardless of the weather, class will be held outside today.
A Week In The Woods
It all started with a professional development course that Hopkins and Janis Boulbol, a sixth-grade teacher, attended this year. The course was focused on aligning education towards the goals of ecological integrity, economic vitality, and social justice.
Another source of inspiration for the two Sharon teachers was a series of monthly meetings with Eliza Minnucci and Meghan Teachout, local experts on outdoor education. Their successful implementation of a Forest Friday kindergarten classroom in Quechee has inspired many schools around Vermont to offer similar programs.
These two opportunities led Boulbol and Hopkins to develop their “A Week in the Woods” curriculum at the Sharon school, using the outdoors as a context for deep and meaningful learning.
What do we need to survive and thrive? The fourth- and sixth-graders spent a week in the woods focusing on those questions.
They spent every morning of the week exploring, building, studying their environment, and collaborating on building shelters. They also spent a whole day with local experts on building an emergency shelter, identifying edible mushrooms and plants, exploring a stream, and cooking outdoors.
Ian O’Donnell shares his vast knowledge of edible plants and mushrooms students might encounter in their own backyard.
The goal for the week was to immerse students in another way of learning, one that allows them to focus their attention—using all of their senses. The week also gave them opportunities to develop inquiries about the natural world, and to hone skills needed to survive—and thrive—each and every day.
At the end of the week, Hopkins was smiling, full of energy. “We didn't know what to expect,” she commented. “Our time in the forest really shook up the typical classroom and social dynamics. Students with forest knowledge were able to shine; students with hands-on learning styles were fully engaged; and there were minimal behavior issues. More than anything,” she added, “there was a sense of community … a budding gratitude for the place in which we live and learn.”
Boulbol was hopeful, too. Maple, one of her students, wrote that he “learned better outside because I love being outside and we have the experience of actually building forts and fires, not just learn about them.” She hopes to do several “Week in the Woods” in the future.
Principal Barrett Williams talks to the students about emergency shelters with hands-on practice on how to build one.
Next Year, Everyone
“A Week in the Woods” for the two classrooms, however, is just the beginning. Sharon Principal Barrett Williams aims to send the whole school outdoors next school year.
The proposal is to bring the 160 students, pre-K to sixth grade, to three separate outdoor campuses—including a state forest—for a minimum of two hours one day a week. And he means every week of the year, even in the winter months.
“This is not recess,” says Williams, who has been a principal at Sharon Elementary School for 10 years.
Williams is confident that children will learn not only new skills but also transfer what they are already learning to a new learning environment. They might write their weekly journal about what they see in the forest that week, or just study the life cycle of a spring peeper in its natural habitat—instead of watching videos or reading a book about the life cycle of peepers.
Some might think that focusing so much time on outdoor education in a public school in Vermont is redundant. These children, after all, live in Vermont, a state that is 78% forested.
“You would be surprised by how little time these children spend [in the forest],” said Williams.
Outdoor education consultants Minnucci and Teachout concur: “When we told our kindergartners that we were going to go in the woods, a little boy asked if we were going to see monkeys,” recalled Teachout.
When pressed about the reasons for the decrease in outdoor time, Principal Williams attributed it to increased use of technology and lack of time. The majority of households have both parents working long hours, and even though the school has implemented a no-homework policy this year, there is little time during a typical day for the kids to play and explore their own backyard.
“This is a great opportunity for the kids to see how lucky they are to live in Vermont,” said Williams. “We live in a beautiful place; I hope they can learn to appreciate it more.”
With the state struggling to attract and keep young people in Vermont, he suggested, this might be a long-term solution to keep people connected to their community and to encourage young families to stay in—or move to—Vermont.
In 10 years, Principal Williams has seen attendance at Sharon Elementary almost double.
He attributes the gain to young families moving in town to access the many initiatives the school has been working on to better the children’s education: a successful Farm-to-School program, a free, robust preschool program on-site at the elementary school, a partnership with local entities to offer the children a place-based education approach, and now hopefully a weekly outdoor education program.
Minnucci and Teachout, the consultants, said in their experience, adding outdoor education supported all the kids in their classes.
“When we first started the program, I thought this would be great for the rowdy children—those who get in trouble because they can’t sit still,” said Teachout.
But what Minnucci and Teachout didn’t expect was seeing “plenty of examples of kids who had no trouble in the classroom finally struggling to solve a problem,” recalled Minnucci.
Williams is hopeful that the program will be a success in Sharon, and be a positive influence in a wider arena than education at Sharon Elementary School. The school and wider community are facing growing changes and challenges, he noted, including substance abuse, families dealing with trauma, financial hardship, social media use, and misuse of technology by the students.
Addressing the social and emotional needs of his students, by offering them a place-based education, he suggested, is a step in the right direction to prepare students to face those challenges, and be ready to learn in the classroom or outside.
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