​SES Forest Fridays Explores the World Outside

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

Eli Rose ran down the hill behind Sewanee Elementary School, dressed in rain pants and ready to explore. He and the rest of the students made it to the bottom of the hill and began to settle in around the circle of tree stump stools. After a moment, he shrieked.

One of his classmates almost sat on the slug that was occupying the stump next to him.

“Be careful!” he yelled. “The slug is already sitting there, so that’s the slug’s stump.”

And so it was.

Eli and his classmates were spending Friday morning outside as they do every Friday, rain or shine. This allows natural environment to become an alternative classroom, which is something administrators at SES have been exploring since last summer.

“We went out our very first Friday back in August the first week of school, and the first day with all 36 of our kindergartners, it was pouring down rain. It was wonderful! We saw a luna moth, put slugs on each others’ heads and we had to stomp in puddles too,” said kindergarten teacher Kelli Camp.

Inspiration for the project came from Red Bank Elementary School just outside of Chattanooga, and, with funding from the Sewanee Parent Organization through the Sewanee Community Chest, kindergarten teachers Michelle Whaley and Kelli Camp and pre-school teacher Kim Casey completed the level one Forest School Teacher Training. Camp has since received the level two training.

Principal Kim Tucker said the purpose of the nature-based education is the education of the whole child.

“Forest Friday really helps us with that. Using our community and using our forest has enhanced the learning, and the kindergarten teachers are already planning to do a piece of this every day instead of just Fridays,” she said.

Camp said there are benefits for both the teachers and the students.

“For the students, they’re getting to experience most of our science standards first-hand — the change of the seasons, getting to observe plant and animal life and the weather. What better way to learn than be right in the middle of it?” she said. “The children have learned respect for each other and nature. We are learning that, even on rainy days, there is so much to enjoy. And for the teachers, we get to experience nature through the eyes of our students. Their excitement and wonder confirms that this is how our kids should be learning.”

Camp said parents have been very supportive as well, providing rain pants and boots for the students and making notes of what the children experiment with on their own in the home.

One parent said her child now brings all sorts of sticks inside and watches closely as she makes waves in the bathtub. “Several have joined us in the woods and only have good things to say about this program,” Camp said.

Eli’s mom Robin said she’s glad Eli and his classmates are getting the opportunity to spend more time outside — and less time in a classroom looking out the window.

“I feel like kids are indoors way too much, and Eli is an outside boy anyway. Being out in the fresh air and sunshine is good for them. I think it’s awesome that they can do classrooms,” she said. “He talks about it every day.”

Camp said for the 2019–20 school year, they hope to expand the program and institute a 2-hour daily period of exploration.

“We will spend the last 2 hours of every school day in our forest classroom, and our hope in the future is to provide every student with the gear that they need each day. This school year, thanks to the Sewanee Parent Organization, the Community Chest and Mountain Outfitters, we received rain pants for each child, and Bogs donated 20 pairs of children’s boots. Taking the stress off the parents and providing gear ensures that each child is ready to explore each day,” Camp said.

Long-term, Camp hopes the school’s work with Forest Fridays will instill in the students a lifelong joy of learning and a constant wonder for nature.

“I see a worm! I see a worm! Come quick!” Eli was tipping the tree stump stools to look for worms.

His classmate Layla wanted to take some worms home for the family compost, and classmate Adelaide was helping. For his mom, his growing excitement about the natural world is due to the forest program.

“He likes to tell me everything they found, what they did and what they play when they’re outside. And at home, he’s always looking for something outside or showing me some cool bug,” she said. “We’re just really appreciative of the experience he’s getting to have. He is learning a lot.”