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Newton School principal, Greg Bagnato, started getting a lot of phone calls and emails when Anmari Kicza, the school’s kindergarten teacher, began taking her students outside each week for Forest Day. “Parents were thrilled. The response was overwhelming,” Greg says. “Right away I started looking for opportunities for students to continue this hands-on learning in nature beyond kindergarten.”

Greg consulted the staff and they decided to work with Hannah Gelroth and Michelle Amato from the Vermont Institute for Natural Science (VINS) to provide professional development and curriculum to teachers interested in doing more place-based ecology education. First and second grade teachers, Amanda Longcore and Marie Robinson stepped up to take advantage of this opportunity. Read on to learn about what these teachers are doing in the effort to grow the Newton School’s PBEE offerings.

Kindergarten

“I heard a story on the radio about other schools doing Forest Days and it caught my interest.” says Anmari. “I did a little research and immediately caught the bug. I found ForestKinder and enrolled in the professional learning community they facilitate each year.” Now, three years into the program, Anmari reflects on her success. “I have a parent volunteer, Becky Proulx, who co-teaches forest day with me. We meet after school to plan together and work on grant proposals in the summer. We’re committed to this because we see the difference it makes for the kids.”

“I see kids play differently outdoors,” says Anmari. “I see more imaginative play. We do a lot of reflecting on what we’re noticing in the forest and this spurs some amazing oral language for them. And students are responding well to doing science, writing, reading, and math outdoors. It’s incredible.”

She’s also found that taking small risks outdoors has helped build children’s gross motor skills and confidence. “Sometimes people come out in the forest with us and see the kids climbing trees. “Are you really letting them do that?”, they ask. I always explain that taking these risks is important for kids and this kind of play builds confidence. We are not climbing trees on the first day of school in September. We get to know each child and we talk about their limits. By late winter and spring they have grown in many ways and are allowed to take more risks.”

Anmari has received support from The Wellborn Ecology Fund and others to purchase rain gear, warm clothes, a luggable loo, and other essentials. In 2017 she was awarded a grant to record and organize the curriculum she and her co-teacher have developed in order to make it available to other teachers interested in teaching kindergarten outdoors. This will be made shared via the Wellborn Hub website in late 2018.

Grades 1 & 2

Amanda Longcore remembers that, “We were doing some piecemeal outdoor activities, but they were not tied together or to the curriculum. We decided we needed to set aside a block of time regularly to learn outside. We’re busy. And outdoor time was getting pushed aside in favor of other things.”

Marie and Amanda worked with VINS to develop a unifying theme that would tie together their outdoor education for the entire school year.

“Last year’s theme was a meadow,” says Marie. “We built rain catchers, took core samples, made windsocks, did a soil test and plant observation, and made a snow gauge. VINS was really helpful in giving us these ideas and tying them to what we need to be teaching the kids at this grade level. Alongside our theme, our guiding question for each year is, “Is this a healthy habitat?”

When asked for advice for others hoping to spend more time teaching outside, Amanda reflected that, “It is important to sit down and make a plan at the beginning of the year. Stay flexible to the plan, but thinking ahead about the theme and your goal is important. And hire outside help if you can.

Cross-School Efforts

The Newton School has long had a strong Farm to School program. Just this past year, Greg was able to make it part of a staff member’s responsibilities to coordinate this program and other environmental education initiatives in order to bring more cohesion. Much like Amanda and Marie’s efforts to tie their outdoor activities together with a unifying theme, the whole staff at Newton is now working to develop a cohesive plan across the school. “We have a new teacher, Alyssa Catalano, who is now dedicating 20% of her time bringing all these efforts together with an Action Plan. This will be a game-changer for us.”

“We have a real opportunity here at Newton,” Greg says. We have a strong but flexible curriculum that was developed at local level and this allows us to spend more time outside. To me, the biggest benefits of PBEE are the social and emotional gains kids make. This, in turn, sets them up for better academic success. Outdoor education is also a way to ensure you are teaching to the many learning styles that exist within one class. Kids that may not have as much success in the classroom will have wins outdoors that will build their confidence and change their outlook on school in general.”
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Field Notes is a monthly column highlighting the work of Upper Valley educators passionate about place-based environmental education. Do you have a story to share? Email us and let us know.