Kinderforest program to go international

Kindergartners at Wolf Lake Elementary School climbed in trees during their free time during the Kinderforest day at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center. The students were asked to observe what is different in that specific area of the woods compared to their visit last month and give a possible reason of why it’s different.

Samantha Whiting

WOLF LAKE — When the Wolf Lake Elementary School kindergartners venture to the woods once a month, it’s not just for fun and games.

Wolf Lake Elementary School and the Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center have pioneered a new way of teaching that has been chosen to be presented at an international conference in Chicago.

The school’s Kinderforest program, new this year, gives kindergarten classes an opportunity to put on their outdoor gear and travel to Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center for a full day each month, no matter the weather. The forest becomes their classroom for the day.

Marcos Stoltzfus, director of environmental education outreach at Merry Lea, worked with Principal Robby Morgan to bring the program to life. Stoltzfus submitted a proposal to speak about Kinderforest at the World of Wonder conference in Chicago this August.

Stoltzfus and Morgan, along with a few of their teachers, were chosen to present at one of the conference’s break-out sessions.

World of Wonder is an international, nature-based, early learning conference. Morgan said he suspects hundreds, if not thousands of proposals were submitted.

“If (Kinderforest) is a successful model, having the chance to share that at a conference setting is great because then some place in Illinois, or even globally, could be experimenting with this same thing,” Stoltzfus said.

Kinderforest began in August 2017. Each month, the two kindergarten classes at Wolf Lake are bussed over to the center and spend the day learning outside.

“The idea behind it is that there’s a lot less focus on traditional academic practices,” Stoltfus said. “It’s based on the belief or understanding that authentic experiences in nature can better prepare students for school work later in life. Nature is an important setting because of the experiences that come with it.”

The lessons are centered around the topics which the students express interest.

“It’s very child-directed learning,” Stoltzfus explained. “The students are the center point of the learning experience.”

For example, Morgan said, if the students express to their teachers that they are interested in bees, the teachers will base activities and lessons off of that interest.

Stoltzfus gave an example of a time they were out in the woods and a flock of sand hill cranes flew over the group of students. This one instance sparked a curiosity to learn more about migration in the classroom, he said. Teachers were able to take the students’ curiosity and translate it to classroom learning. The students went back to the school and wanted to learn more in-depth about migration.

“You have to learn by doing things,” Morgan said. “There’s so many things happening (in the forest) that can’t happen in a classroom.”

Stoltzfus and Morgan believe the way their Kinderforest program is set-up is unique. Rather than a field trip, where the school comes to the property, uses their expertise and leaves, Kinderforest has developed a relationship between the environmental learning center and the school.

Countless meetings and phone calls between Morgan, Stoltzfus and the school’s kindergarten teachers have made it a partnership, Morgan said.

“We have been figuring this out very much in tandem, we’ve been experiencing the same things along the way and it’s been very relational,” Stoltzfus explained. “That, I believe, has been a very key piece to our success and so we want to try to communicate that to the conference participants.”

The plan is for Wolf Lake Elementary to eventually take over the program themselves.

“They aren’t going to be reliant on us forever to be operating the program,” Stoltzfus said.

Eventually, Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center will become the expert source for questions or training for teachers. The school and its teachers will become the facilitators. This will allow the learning center to use their time to train teachers from other schools in the Kinderforest model.

“I think it’s interesting for the schools because they’re not looking to be paying us indefinitely to be running this program that they see so much value in,” Stoltzfus said.

As the pioneers of Kinderforest in a rural, public school setting, Morgan hopes his staff will be able to help future schools in the training process as well.

“Where my teachers could help is with the implementation of it,” Morgan explained. “Standards, how it works in the classroom, how you can bring things in. So I think there will still be a partnership in helping to expand it to other schools.”

Morgan said they are planning to expand the Kinderforest program to the first-graders for next year.

The World of Wonder conference is Aug. 1-4 at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

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