Into the Woods: On Fridays, Ottauquechee Kindergarteners Take Class Outside

Tuesday, April 08, 2014
At 9 on Friday morning, teacher Eliza Minnucci asked her class a question that isn’t often heard in kindergarten classrooms: “What do you think we’ll notice out in the woods today?”

The 17 children sat in a ring, each on a mat bearing a letter of the alphabet, and considered their teacher’s question. Will there be more snow than the week before or less? It would be wetter and there would be more signs of spring. Would there be bugs? Did you say “buds?” That led to the spelling of “birds,” “buds” and “bugs,” sounded out by the children and written on a big sheet of paper by Minnucci, who drew a little picture next to each word.

In most respects, this classroom at Ottauquechee School is like other kindergarten classrooms. Posted on the board are the days of the week and the day of the school year, a teaching tool that helps children learn to differentiate hundreds, tens and ones. But every Friday, the students trade this classroom for a short walk into a patch of woods hemmed in by the school’s driveway and a ridge. For at least three hours, that’s their classroom.

As the stakes for education continue to rise, and as children continue to spend more time in front of screens, a counter-reformation of sorts is under way, and the forest classroom at Ottauquechee School is both a manifestation of that movement and a teaching tool that fits with the school’s curriculum and the incoming Common Core State Standards.

And just as important, the forest is a place where the kindergartners can build up the personal resources they will need to succeed in school, traits such as perseverance, patience and communication.

“I do want to try to give the kids an opportunity to learn real independence and resilience,” said Minnucci, who is in her fifth year at Ottauquechee School.

The program is part of a continuum of outdoor exploration at the school. For the past couple of years, Ottauquechee students have taken field trips on the section of the Appalachian Trail that runs through West Hartford, Principal Amos Kornfeld said. The school has also taken advantage of the Vermont Institute for Natural Science’s naturalist-in-residence program.

Last spring, a substitute teacher who’s also a parent in the Hartford School District showed staff a video from a Swiss school using a forest classroom. With Kornfeld’s backing Minnucci got $10,500 in grant money from the Vermont Community Fund, the Wellborn Ecology Fund and the Byrne Foundation that paid to bring Meghan Teachout, a teacher who had interned in Minnucci’s classroom, back to the school every Friday. Between the grant money and volunteer labor from parents and Minnucci’s father, the pilot program got off the ground and the classroom was built piece by piece.

At the bottom of the trail, Teachout stopped the children for a reminder. “Think about what you notice. Use your owl eyes ... what kind of ears do we have?”

“Bat ears!”

“And your snowshoe hare hands and feet,” Teachout said.

The cornerstone of kindergarten has long been preparing children for school. They are meant to learn to use their senses and to orient themselves in the wider world. The forest classroom fits into that mission. The children make their own observations and read the temperature on their own, Kornfeld said. “They can feel it,” he said. It beats the usual lesson of looking out the classroom window to learn about the weather.

The children clambered up the hill, following Teachout at their own pace. The snow was packed down, but not so much that it was hard to spot deer tracks. On the path, the snow had hardened into ice, and the children had to figure out how to navigate around it.

At the classroom is a fire pit that the children helped to build. The wooden tripod over the pit was built by bigger hands. Around the pit are flat logs on the ground for benches, and steps away are a pair of shelters, including one planned by the children that has a roof of logs. The other is a necessity and a sign of the class’ commitment to their Fridays outdoors, a latrine.

“They did a lot of the gathering and came up with a plan for how it should look,” Anna Rayner, a special education aide in Minnucci’s classroom, said of the shelter.

Arriving at the classroom, the kids repaired to their “sit spots,” places to spend a little quiet time before convening around the fire. On their way up the hill, children had picked up sticks, for walking, for turning into guns, for playing with. The school’s other kindergarten class, taught by Polly Bradley, spends part of every Wednesday morning outside, and had buried math problems — small pieces of paper with plastic snap-together blocks — in the snow. Sawyer Kissell, 5, dug three of them out and was putting one together on a tree stump at his sit spot.

“I’m trying to make a pyramid with 1 and 14,” he said. What did he like about having class outside on Friday? “Everything,” he said.

Teachout tore up strips of birch bark to start a fire. Stuart and Nicole Ofstad, whose son Elijah is in the class, were already in the classroom when the children arrived, having gotten there early to gather wood for the fire. That made 17 kindergartners and five adults.

Stuart Ofstad said he was glad Elijah has “the opportunity just to explore and learn and figure things out on his own.”

The students spent the first 15 or 20 minutes at their sit spots before Teachout called out to them. “I want you to think in your head what kind of prey you’d like to be today,” she said. “Sneak to the fire without getting eaten.”

Sawyer set down his blocks and slowly crawled to the fire pit. Mathias Hawkins, 6, slid down the side of a ledge on his belly, then climbed back up and slid down again.

Once the kids were seated on logs around the fire, Minnucci handed around pieces of cranberry bread Teachout had made for a snack and the children went around the circle, greeting each other and asking what seemed different about the forest.

“I notice you could find a little more sticks.”

“I noticed that there’s 15 rings in one of the stumps.”

“It’s been a while since we could see a stump,” Minnucci said.

The class came outside every Friday this school year, even on the coldest winter days. Some of the grant money that paid for Teachout’s time also covered warm clothes. While classes could be short in the coldest weather, kids often showed great resilience.

“It’s a buy-in to trying,” Minnucci said. The effort the children have to put in outdoors translates into the classroom, she said.

The classroom’s forest is the kind of scruffy second growth forest that predominates in the Upper Valley, with spruce and pine interspersed with mixed hardwoods, mainly beech, birch, maple and hophornbeam. It isn’t particularly dense, especially in the winter, and it is anything but remote. The school building isn’t visible, but a little before 11 a.m., a garbage truck rumbled down the school driveway. The children paid it no mind.

Not far away, Mathias used a stick to dig a hole in the snow. Underneath was a stream running down the hill into Pine Creek. He trooped up the hill to where a cluster of children had dammed the stream.

“Mathias, what did you find?” Rayner asked.

“I’ll show you,” he replied, and pelted back down the gentle slope, snow flying off the bottom of his snowpants.

At the dam, Jayden Foster, 5, found an earthworm. After it was handed around, Jayden took possession, dubbed the creature “Wormy” and brought it back to the fire pit at lunchtime.

As the children ate their lunches, Minnucci read a Beatrix Potter story wherein the rascally Billy Mink pushes poor Peter, who can’t swim, down the otter slide and into the water. Little Joe Otter and Billy Mink rescue him. Teachout passed out cups of sap from maples the children had tapped the week before, and that had been boiled down in a cast iron pot over the fire.

Outdoor education isn’t a new thing, Teachout said after lunch.

“It’s notable because I feel like, what I’ve found is there’s all these people who do outdoor education, and all these people who do public education, and there’s not a lot of overlap,” she said. “I hope that other teachers would think about doing this.”

A facilitator for an outdoor class doesn’t have to be a naturalist or a teacher, she added. Minnucci’s class looks at a book written by Hartland naturalist Mary Holland.

The reading fits with one of the aims of the Common Core standards, which encourage close reading of nonfiction texts, Teachout said. And the district’s curriculum stresses direct observation, another part of the Common Core.

“It seems like out here it’s really just fertile ground for applying a curriculum in an authentic way,” Teachout said.

After lunch, the kids spent a little more time rambling around. The classroom temperature warmed up from the mid-30s when the kids arrived to the high 40s. The children’s jackets and snowpants were pretty well soaked, and the children seemed a bit frayed, ready for a rest.

Jilli Ouellette, a 6-year-old with a sharp sense of humor, lingered at the fire pit, munching on the yogurt-covered pretzels and grapes left over in her lunchbox.

“Jilli was pretty tentative at the beginning of the year,” Minnucci said. “The last few weeks, she’s been really interested in doing all the work.”

In rural New England, the outdoors used to be part of every child’s education. But over the past 15 years, schooling has become a more serious enterprise, even at the youngest ages, and kids find it easier to stay indoors with video games, Legos and other opportunities for play. Preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds introduces literacy and math concepts, and full-day kindergarten is now more like first grade used to be, Kornfeld noted. The earlier schooling is part of an effort to help more children succeed throughout school and later in life.

As noble as that effort is, something is lost, and a cottage industry in books about introducing children to the outdoors has grown up in the past few years. If the forest classroom enables “authentic” learning, it’s because a lot of what children experience is ersatz, witnessed through screens where there’s no dirt, no terrain, no discovery.

“There’s less of kids being able to just play out in the woods,” Minnucci said.

Teachout and Minnucci called the children back to the fire pit. Their faces were smeared with dirt. Teachout persuaded Jayden that the worm was best left in the woods.

“What if he gets lost?” Jayden said. She burst into tears.

But soon enough she was making her way back down the hill, back to the school. Music class would begin at 1, but some small part of her thoughts were back in her other classroom, in the forest, not lost, but burrowed in the soil.

Alex Hanson can be reached at or 603-727-3219.


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