Madison, Wisconsin. For most schools, the past two years have brought a complex assessment of the risks of being in the classroom: in-person versus virtual learning, masks, class sizes, and ventilation. But a growing number of schools across the country have sidestepped many of those concerns by leaving classrooms behind.
At La Farge, in the sprawling Kickapoo Valley Forest Preserve, 29 students show up at school each day and, no matter their daily naps, they stay outside all day, no matter what the weather throws at them.
Kickapoo Valley Forest School is just in its first year of being a full-day, week-long charter school. Previously, the forest reserve hosted a weekly half-day outdoor educational program on Fridays. Outdoor education advocacy group Natural Start Alliance counted 563 outdoor preschools and kindergartens last year, more than double the number in 2017—including many daycare, preschool and elementary programs in Wisconsin.
Every student at Kickapoo Valley Forest School, or KVFS, gets a full set of rain—boots, pants, and a jacket—and extensive instructions are sent to their families on how to raise children to keep them warm, even when the temperature drops below freezing. One of the students, a 5-year-old named Mia Sheard, counted four layers of clothes on a 30-degree day in November.
“Under this coat, I have this, and this under this,” she said, unzipping the top of her purple bathing suit to reveal a jacket, also purple, “and then I have these gloves!”
Kickapoo Valley Reserve’s director of education, Juniel Keso, said students didn’t fully understand the school’s philosophy at first, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.
She said, “There were kids who would say, like, ‘When do we go inside?'” ‘ ‘And we were able to say, ‘Well, we’re not. And now they don’t ask anymore, they just like being outside.”
KVFS is a charter public school in the La Farge school district, located in southwest Wisconsin, about an hour east of La Crosse. Currently, King Faisal Specialist School has places for 32 children in Pre-K and Kindergarten, but will add Grade 1 next year, and Grade 2 the following year, as current enrollees get older.
The flow of the school day can vary depending on what the environment looks like.
The week before Thanksgiving, the students had to give up their usual ride—kids typically log about two miles a day—because it was Venetian deer season, and the hunters were in the surrounding woods. When he asked the kids questions about it, as kids do, Kiesau made it so factually clear.
“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 kids’ learning has this experimental focus—they pick up fallen walnut objects for a walk, for example, and teachers help them cook them in dye to decorate white tees. Children’s demand for knocking on an old stump turns into a lesson on how trees – both living and dead – fit into a forest ecosystem.
Ximena Puig, a KVFS teacher with background in the Waldorf Schools, said she has seen children grow in their understanding of the environment within just a few months of school.
“The children who probably picked every mushroom we saw at first are now saying, ‘Miss Zimina, please don’t step back, there’s a little mushroom behind you,'” she said. Please don’t step on it.”
They also have more traditional lessons. During the morning, teachers will bring out blankets or rugs and boxes of numbers and letters to help children master basic concepts.
Jason Rudd, a student teacher assigned to the site as part of his teaching certificate, had one student pick a number, then sent her to take that number of sticks and count them back to him. With another, he ran across letters and sounds.
“This is the letter Q,” he said to Jet Oium, after they pronounced it together.
“Quinoa!” Jet’s response was enthusiastic.
“Quinoa? Excellent,” Rudd said.
Outdoor education has special appeal in the event of a pandemic, as research shows that transmission of the coronavirus is much lower outdoors, and children and adults can safely hide the mask outdoors. Kiesau said that was likely part of the appeal made by some families who registered this year, the first year of school.
But when teachers and administrators talk about the benefits of holding classes outside, they keep getting back to the way children relate to their environment.
“The love that they begin to develop for their environment, which is crucial to our survival as human beings, and that our children love, appreciate and care about the environment around them, happens because we live in it,” Puig said.
Northwest of KVFS, teachers at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School in Hayward began taking students outside for class in the spring of 2021, when the school returned to in-person tutoring after nearly two semesters of distance learning.
The school has an outdoor space for school celebrations and traditions that serves as an outdoor classroom. Teachers take their students for walks during lessons.
Mary Robinson, an Ojibwe language teacher for grades 9-12, said it was easy to switch her students to outdoor learning because the Ojibwe started as a spoken rather than written language, so it was only natural to practice it while walking in nature, in conversation with classmates.
“Especially for the Native students, it’s really important that each of us stay connected to the land, the environment and the outdoors,” she said. “We lost a lot of that going in.”
She took her lessons outside all last spring and this fall, though she’s had to cut back as the temperatures drop because, in her words, “high school students don’t like wearing coats and shoes very much.”
However, she said, students really love being outdoors. Unlike elementary and middle school students, who have a break, high school students often don’t spend much time outside.
“I think it’s a shift that’s going to continue, and not just because of COVID,” said Jessica Hutchinson, Lake Court Supervisor Aurelise Ojibwe. “It’s a mental health issue, not just for the kids, but for the staff. I think it’s a therapeutic thing.”
Educators at Kickapoo Valley Forest School see a similar effect. They say the behavioral issues are fairly minimal, thanks in part to the kids being able to exert a lot of energy and flow more freely around the woodland site during the day.
“Having a place where they can raise their voice and move around and not have to stand in line or sit at a desk feels like such a gift,” Puig said. “They are able to move their bodies in all the developmentally appropriate ways.”
Kiesau and Robin Hosemann, planning assistant and leadership coordinator at KVFS, made field visits to other forest schools in the state to see what they could learn from more established outdoor programmes. They are also excited to bring teachers who are curious about outdoor education to their own sites, with the hope that more schools will incorporate outdoor learning.
It’s something Robinson, at Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe, believes is possible even for schools that don’t have a jungle at their disposal — although she does have one practical advice for schools that want to try it.
“They will need portable radios,” she said. “It sounds silly, but certainly being able to communicate with employees outside the building is a safe thing, so having that in place, is important.”
Next, she said, it requires teachers to be in good control of their classrooms, and to have clear expectations for students.
“Lesson plans, all those things are still in place,” she said. “This mindset: We’re learning abroad today, we’re still covering the material, and it’s still academically focused, but we’re going to be moving abroad and we have a different environment for that.”