For most schools, the past two years have brought a complicated weighing of the risks of being in a classroom: face-to-face versus virtual learning, masks, class sizes, ventilation. But a growing number of schools across the country have been getting around many of these concerns by abandoning the classroom.
In La Farge, in the vast Kickapoo Valley Forest Reserve, 29 students show up to school each day and, apart from a daily nap, stay outside all day, regardless of the weather.
Kickapoo Valley Forest School is only in its first year of a full day, full week charter school. Previously, the forest reserve hosted a weekly outdoor learning program for half a day on Fridays. Outdoor education advocacy group Natural Start Alliance identified 563 outdoor preschools and kindergartens last year, more than double the number in 2017, including several daycare, preschool and elementary programs. in Wisconsin.
Each student at Kickapoo Valley Forest School, or KVFS, receives a complete 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 clothes 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. -shirt and a sweater dress, “and then I have these mittens!”
Kickapoo Valley Reserve Education Director Jonel Kiesau said students didn’t quite understand the school’s philosophy at first.
“There were kids who were like, like, ‘When are we going inside?’,” She said. “And we were able to say, ‘Well, we’re not.’ And now they don’t even ask anymore, they just love to be outside. “
KVFS is a public charter school in the La Farge School District, located in southwestern Wisconsin, about an hour east of La Crosse. Right now, KVFS has places for 32 kids in preschool and kindergarten, but it will add first grade next year and second grade the following year as current registrants get older.
The course of the school day may vary depending on the environment.
The week before Thanksgiving, the students had to forgo their usual hike – the kids typically hike nearly 2 miles a day – as it was deer season and the hunters were in the surrounding forest. When the kids asked about it, like the kids do, Kiesau explained it in a neutral tone.
“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 shells of fallen walnuts on a walk, for example, and teachers help them bake them in dye to decorate plain white T-shirts. . Children’s demand to knock over an old stump turns into a lesson in how trees – living and dead – fit into the forest ecosystem.
“The kids who may have picked all the mushrooms we saw at the start are now saying,“ Miss Ximena, please don’t back down, 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 pull out blankets or mats and boxes of numbers and letters to help children master basic concepts.
Jason Rood, a student teacher assigned to the site as part of his teaching certification, asked a student to pick a number, then sent them to get that number of sticks and count them to him. With another, he scanned letters and sounds.
“It’s the letter Q,” he told Jet Oium, after they probed him together.
“Quinoa!” was Jet’s enthusiastic response.
” Quinoa ? Excellent, ”said Rood.
Outdoor education has particular appeal during a pandemic, as research shows coronavirus transmission is much lower outdoors and children and adults can safely unmask themselves outdoors. . Kiesau said this was likely part of the call for some families who signed up this year, the first year of school.
But when teachers and administrators talk about the benefits of hosting outdoor classes, 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 for our survival as human beings, that our children come to love and appreciate and care for the environment around them, this happens because we are in it“said Puig.
Northwest of KVFS, teachers at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Hayward began taking students out for class in the spring of 2021, when the school returned to in-person teaching after nearly two semesters of schooling. distance learning.
The school has an outdoor space for ceremonies and school traditions that serves as an outdoor classroom. And the teachers take their students for a walk during the lessons.
Mary Robinson, a grades 9-12 Ojibwe language teacher, said it was easy to transition her students into outdoor learning because Ojibwe started out as a spoken and unwritten language, it was therefore natural to practice it while taking nature walks, in conversation with classmates.
“Especially for Indigenous students, it is really important that we are all connected to the Earth, the environment and the outdoors.“she said.” We lost a lot of that going inside. ”
She’s been taking her classes outdoors all last spring and fall, although she had to cut them back as the temperatures dropped because, as she put it, “high school kids don’t really like wearing coats and boots “.
Still, she said, students really love being outside. Unlike elementary and middle school students, who have recess, high school students often don’t spend much time outdoors.
“I think this is a change that will 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 see a similar effect. They say the behavior problems are fairly minimal, which they attribute in part to the fact that the children are able to work 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 around and not have to queue or sit in an office is such a gift,” Puig said. “They are able to move their bodies in any way that is appropriate for their development.”
Kiesau and Robin Hosemann, KVFS deputy planning and leadership coordinator, have made site visits to other forestry schools in the state to see what they can learn from more established outdoor programs. They are also passionate about bringing educators curious about outdoor education to their own site, with the hope that more schools will incorporate outdoor learning.
This is something that Robinson at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School believes is possible even for schools that do not have a forest available to them – although she has a handy tip for schools that want to try.
“They would need portable radios,” she said. “It sounds silly, but being able to communicate with staff outside the building is definitely a safety issue, so having that in place is a big deal.”
After that, however, she said teachers need to have fairly good control over their classes and have clear expectations for students.
“The lesson plans, all of those things still have to be in place,” she said. “This mentality of: we’re learning outside today, we’re still going to cover material, it’s still going to be study-oriented, but we’re going to go out and have a different environment for that.”