CHITTENDEN—American naturalist John Muir stated, “Keep close to Nature’s heart … and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” While students at Barstow Memorial School cannot spend an entire week in the woods, they are frequently “washing their spirits” clean and engaging in the natural world around them. Living in Vermont provides unique learning experiences in nature for our children and students to spend a sizeable amount of their learning outside.
On Friday mornings, Mrs. Manney’s and Ms. Freemole’s kindergarten and first-grade students are outside in all types of weather, traipsing around the forest and East Creek, in an effort to learn about their natural world and themselves. They’ve spent time studying the weather, using engineering skills to create forts and bridges; chosen “sit spots,” a specific spot from which to observe their surroundings and how things change over time as well as to use their nature journals to record observations. Students have constructed a word rock garden consisting of their “sight words” on stones and made a border around them, studied changes in the environment, namely the trees and animal signs, built bird feeders, and used tracking and other identification guides.
To make this possible, the teachers received money from the Four Winds Nature Institute to put towards science units and materials. These were used to purchase Grundens brand waterproof bib pants for each child, as well as teaching resources, like field guides, nature-themed books, and other recommended texts in the field of outdoor education.
One of the aspects of this program that teachers feel is the most beneficial and meaningful is the social-emotional development within the children. The forest setting demands not only self-control in order to be safe and successful, but also collaboration and teamwork to accomplish specific learning tasks. Some of the examples for this include setting up a “forest theater” with a viewing area and stage. Students had to select a long fallen log and, using teamwork, drag it to where they thought it would best work. These learning efforts require a lot of communication, collaboration and trial and error and they provide the younger students with the opportunity to have fun while building these skills that they will take into later grades and experiences.
A unique component of this program is its student-centered approach in the framework of developing a community. Teachers ask questions more than provide answers, in both learning about the environment itself and in creating rules. For example, if a child is throwing rocks in the river, the teachers would ask her, “What do you need to think about in order to be able to do this safely?”, thereby co-establishing safety rules. The group has the opportunity to voice support for the rules or whether one needs to be revisited. Another aspect is where the group circles up and students are invited to share what they considered successes and any issues that need addressing, helping to foster a strong community.
In moving forward with this program, the two educators hope to increase the amount of time spent outside with their students and to encourage other grades in Barstow and around Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union to follow suit. Ms. Freemole said, “I feel that the excitement and anticipation of ‘Forest Friday’ that we see in all the kids each week speaks to the benefit of this program more than anything else.”
Students interact with a log on Forest Friday at Barstow Elementary.