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Mnookin: School In The Woods

Last month, my two-year-old daughter and I stood in a circle of young children admiring a wild turkey pelt. Later, we wandered along the West River, collecting dandelion flowers to turn into fritters, and crouching to examine a robin’s delicate footprint in the soft mud. Groups of older children foraged for fiddlehead ferns and created tinder bundles to start a fire. These activities, though absent from a traditional school day, are a regular part of Oyase Community School, a weekly program in the Dummerston woods where children learn earth living, nature awareness, and community skills.

I participated in Oyase as a volunteer throughout my pregnancy. Each week, I’d spend the day outside with a group of instructors and seven-to-twelve-year-olds. Parents and members of the community joined us for the beginning and end of the day, when we’d sit around a fire sharing stories and songs.

Apart from those routines, our days weren’t based on strict schedules or lesson-plans. Instead, the days’ adventures were determined by a combination of the weather, plant and animal sightings, seasonal “survival” needs, and student passions. The activities were sometimes skill-based, like weaving baskets or making bow drills; and sometimes play-based, like bobcat dodgeball or building a fort.

As a former high-school biology teacher accountable to mandatory state testing, I found Oyase’s seemingly laissez-faire approach unsettling. Over time, though, I appreciated the freedom this program allowed to be fully present, and to trust and learn from the land and each other.

A program of the Vermont Wilderness School, Oyase is a “dynamic learning village.”  It started fifteen years ago when a group of homeschooling families encouraged local educators to create a nature-based, survival skills program. Oyase now also includes children who otherwise attend public school and has enrolled as many as 50 kids ages seven to fifteen. Although they’re associated with a clan based upon their age for small-group activities, the program is designed to be multi-age and intergenerational to facilitate mentoring.

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes, “Passion is lifted from the earth itself by the muddy hands of the young; it travels along grass-stained sleeves to the heart. If we are going to save environmentalism and the environment, we must also save an endangered indicator species: the child in nature.”

With trends in education limiting recess and relying more on high-stakes testing, Oyase is a refreshing change of pace.

Since my daughter was born, we’ve attended Oyase together a handful of times, and she’s fallen in love with the wonders of those Dummerston woods. We’re both looking forward to the day when she’s old enough to participate each week, engaging in community, learning how to find joy in being outside in any weather, and lifting “passion…from the earth itself.”

These skills aren’t easily measured, but they have tremendous, lifelong value.

Abigail Mnookin is a former biology teacher interested in issues of equality and the environment. She is currently organizing parents around climate justice with 350Vermont, and lives in Brattleboro with her wife and their two daughters.
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