About 20 first-graders sat on a circle of log stumps in a forest glade, talking about good things like a birthday, a new bunk bed and playing soccer. A cool breeze blew through this magical patch of woods behind Lakes Elementary School, where teacher Tahlia Hoogerland had taken them to learn by playing in nature.
“You guys really worked hard at making this place your home,” Hoogerland told her students. “You can make any place in nature feel like that, just by being there.”
Then she let them split up to explore where they would, as long as they stayed away from the roped-off poison ivy. Four stayed with her to read an Ogden Nash poem. Three girls in rubber boots walked across a bridge of pallets to investigate a nearby swamp. Three boys battled imaginary zombies with long branches. Some climbed trees.
It’s called Firsts in the Forest, a weekly routine Hoogerland implemented this year. For the better part of each Friday, she brought her young charges to this outdoor classroom for first-time experiences: like the first red-bellied woodpecker sighting, or the first gasp of delight at the shape of a snowflake under a magnifying glass.
She wrote a blog of their activities, which tie into classroom lessons, and students kept waterproof journals. Hoogerland also teaches a summer course for grades 2-5 through Rockford Community Services called Woods and Wetlands at Brower Lake Nature Preserve.
She grew up in a house in the woods, without electricity until she was 10, and spent lots of time playing outside. Those experiences and research in college child-development classes have convinced her children do better socially, emotionally and academically with a healthy dose of playing outside. It’s good for their brains and bodies, she says.
“I just think kids spend way too much time indoors, on devices, in organized sports,” Hoogerland said. “They problem-solve out here; they figure things out on their own.”
Fairy Castles, Roly Polys and Seesaws
For instance, students figured out how to transport the heavy talking-circle stumps up from the swamp by using branches as fulcrums and levers. Others created a “stick mansion” around a tree complete with a tunnel to crawl through.
On this late-May day, they climbed trees like koalas and took to the swamp like frogs.
“The reason I like the forest is there’s really secret stuff nobody’s explored,” a chatty girl named Sedona confided. “There’s this fairy castle and it’s made out of fiddleheads.” Turns out there is also a fairy tree, deep in the swamp.
“We can climb a bunch of trees,” offered Alyson, cheerful in a flower-print dress and polka-dot boots. “It’s pretty nice out here.”
“This morning we found a roly-poly,” said Logan, on a break from battling zombies. “It rolls up in a ball when it gets scared.”
Back at the circle of tree stumps, a couple of students figured out how to make a catapult by dropping a rock on a long branch. Two others converted it into a seesaw.
“I’m going to go invent something else,” a girl said. Added a boy named Grant, “I have an idea. We get a bunch of sticks that are the same size, then we tie them together with a string.”
Hoogerland finds her students learn best by their own explorations and inventions.
“When I try to structure it too much, it just doesn’t go well,” she said. “Every time I let it go and just go wandering with them, something amazing is learned and discovered.”