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Ottauquechee Kindergarten Takes To The Woods

There’s a new kind of pre-school starting to sprout — literally — and it doesn’t have a ceiling or walls. In “Forest Kindergartens,” kids spend a lot of time outdoors, exploring nature, and exercising their bodies and minds. In Vermont, it’s a trend that’s been taking hold slowly, one day at a time.

At the Ottauquechee School in Quechee, every Friday is Forest Friday.

Indoors, on a mild and muddy early spring morning,  kindergarteners are busily plotting how they will spend most of their day outdoors. At one table, there’s a lot of talk about catching make-believe “bad guys” out there.

“There’s no really bad guys but we’re gonna just pretend that there’s gonna be bad guys there,” says one young planner.

In a circle on the floor, other kids are preparing to spot some wildlife with the aptly named Assistant Teacher Meg Teachout.

“What sorts of things have we seen around that we say, oh, a deer must have been here?” asks Ms. Teachout. 

“Deer scat,” answers one naturalist.

“What else?” she wonders.

“Deer prints,” another child suggests.

Each Friday, Teachout and lead teacher Eliza Minnucci use the woods — almost all day, in all kinds of weather — as an alternative classroom. Children learn how to navigate relationships and nature while applying math, language and science skills.

These days, they have a tough slog up the steep path behind the school through snow, ice, and mud.  

“Guys, our pond is actually a river now!” yells one young hiker, passing a rushing stream.

When they get to the top of the hill, each child runs to his or her own observation site — called a sitzspot — to see what else has changed over the past week.  Jayden Foster says last Friday she was sinking in deep snow, but not today.

“Ice” she reports. “Because the rain came down and made it all ice.”

Meteorology 101. Meanwhile, young architects are scrambling into an igloo-like structure they made together out of snow and rocks. Still others are bringing sticks to the campfire where teacher Meg Teachout is setting up a tripod for a sap bucket.

“Eyes and ears — guess what we are going to have today instead of hot chocolate for a treat?” she asks the kids. “Syrup! It probably won’t be syrup yet but it’s going to be sap. It’s going to be hot sap, and the longer we wait the sweeter it will get so we will do a taste test.”

Not far away, sap is dripping into a bucket hung from a maple tree. A few children are taking turns catching the sweet drops on outstretched tongues. Instead of fighting about who gets the prime spot, they start counting, and switch places after each taster gets exactly seventeen drops.

That’s when Teacher Eliza Minnucci spontaneously slips in a math lesson.

“Place value — ten and seven more is seventeen, right?” she quizzes them.

For Minnucci, this forest is filled with teaching moments like that.

“Yeah, like just how those two just traded who was pouring the bucket without an issue? That doesn’t always happen in kindergarten very smoothly. I mean it still doesn’t happen all the time for sure,” she says.

Outdoors, she says, her kindergarteners take responsibilities they might shirk indoors — like pulling a heavy sled filled with sap buckets. She cites research showing all kinds of social and cognitive benefits of outdoor education for young children.

Private schools throughout the world are latching onto Forest Kindergarten, but in Vermont, there are only two public programs: at Ottauquechee, and at the Sustainability Academy at Lawrence Barnes School in Burlington.

And some teacher training is springing up as well, says David Sobel, Professor of Education at Antioch New England Institute in Keene, N.H. He has helped the Ottauquechee School to develop curriculum that gets the kindergartners outdoors every Friday, and he predicts that will help them all be better prepared for first grade.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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