Merry Lea

Kinderforest students from Central Noble Primary investigate a decaying log.

ALBION — Kindergarteners don’t have a great reputation for keeping their hands to themselves.

“Social distancing is not in their vocabulary,” Central Noble Primary Principal Robby Morgan said.

Teaching kindergarten through second grade how to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a small feat. But, a program that Central Noble is already running might help.

Kinderforest, or outdoor school at woods on Central Noble’s campus, might be one way kids can stay active, learn and keep a safe distance from one another at the same time.

Central Noble Primary started Kinderforest three to four years ago with help of Goshen College’s Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center.

Now, the two still communicate about outdoor school, but Central Noble Primary has taken over instruction and location of its Kinderforest.

Kinderforest is what it sounds like. Kindergarteners go into the woods with their teachers and practice observing, leading and working with a team, along with chipping away at learning state standards.

Morgan said while coming up with a plan of how to safely reopen school in the fall, he’s tentatively looking at expanding outdoor education to first-graders, calling theirs Forest First.

“It will look different than kinderforest does,” Morgan said.

For instance, while Kinderforest students go outside on select days for the entire day, Morgan said Central Noble Primary wants to have the first-graders outside for a bit of time three to five days out of the week.

“With COVID,” Morgan said, “it might end up that they do more outdoors.”

Though Central Noble doesn’t utilize Merry Lea every day for forest school anymore, the Goshen College center is ready to help other schools breach outdoor education.

Last week, Merry Lea announced it will have a virtual teacher workshop about research behind outdoor education and virtual site visits of places used already for learning outside.

Merry Lea Director of Environmental Education Outreach Marcos Stoltzfus said he sees outdoor school in much the same light as Morgan — one option to keep kids safe and learning.

“Right now, in the context of COVID-19, it seems appropriate in addition to a lot of those foundational reasons we’ve been espousing them for,” Stoltzfus said, citing Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations.

In fact, the CDC states that being indoors may heighten the likelihood one might transmit COVID-19 as opposed to being outdoors, since there is less ventilation inside and people are likely crowded closer together.

He also knows that schools’ reopening plans are largely up in the air, so planning to take on outdoor school or even shuttling kids to a field trip at Merry Lea might be hard right now.

“The tricky thing is, right now what we’re hearing is the districts are working to interpret the guidance from the Indiana Department of Education,” Stoltzfus said.

Merry Lea is offering four free sessions on outdoor school for educators from July 14-23. Those interested can sign up on the Merry Lea website.

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