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Campsite classroom lets children learn in and from nature

Schoolwide reading project leads to outdoor experiences

Rockford – Emerging from the trees like brightly colored woodland creatures, 30 fifth-graders come into a clearing and quickly claim their spots: tree-stump stools, a tent, five girls in a canoe. Teacher Megan McCall gives them the signal and they fall silent, absorbed in their books in the quiet stillness of a spring afternoon. 

Third-grader Ilah DeVries discovers the simple joy of climbing a woodland vine

Will Glover, clad in an MSU T-shirt, reads an adventure story about a kid who finds himself in the woods with only a hatchet to survive – a fitting tale for the surroundings. 

“I like how there’s the birds chirping while you read, and nature all around you,” Will says quietly. 

McCall looks around at her students and sees a blessing at work. 

“For such a hard year, all our challenges we faced, this is such a bright spot,” she whispers. “We are so grateful. It’s a gift.”  

The gift is Camp Valley View, a little circle of tranquility carved out of a thick wood behind Valley View Elementary School by an energetic parent volunteer. Together with a guided exploration of nature in a nearby hollow, and a schoolwide read about some industrious squirrels, it added up to a memorable outdoor experience for students long cooped up with masks and computers. 

A magnifying glass for studying leaves is one of many touches PTO President Jason Hiscock brought to Camp Valley View

Books Lead to the Trees  

Camp Valley View grew out of the school’s One School, One Book activity, in which parents are encouraged to read aloud to their children, and teachers coordinate lesson plans around the book. This year’s book was “Nuts to You” by Newbery Medal winner Lynne Rae Perkins, a tale of two squirrels searching in the woods for a friend snatched up by a hawk. Adventure and humor ensue, along with trees being felled for power lines and the squirreling away of nuts.

Meanwhile, Jason Hiscock, parent of two students and PTO president, was looking for something parents could do amid the restrictions of a pandemic. It was then he looked at a 3.5-acre patch of district-owned woods behind the school and began thinking about camping, reading and, yes, squirrels.

‘I wanted it to look like a field trip to a nature center.’

– PTO President Jason Hiscock

“We weren’t able to provide assemblies or field trips,” says Hiscock, who also volunteers as a crossing guard. “We thought, what special experience can we provide this year’s kids? It just kind of snowballed from there.”

He went to work shortly before Spring Break creating the campsite, which is accessed by a paved path leading to a nearby subdivision. Armed with a chainsaw and lots of energy, he cleared away brush, dug a pond, fashioned seats from logs and erected a tent with canvas bought by the PTO. 

A chalkboard provided by a family, a canoe donated by AAA Canoe Rental and a bird-watching station helped conjure a kind of campsite classroom. 

“I wanted it to look like a field trip to a nature center,” Hiscock says. 

Mission accomplished, says Megan McCall, who like other teachers reserved the camp for reading, math and other activities. “We’re so in love with it,” she says. “He’s our hero.” 

Hiscock even made promotional videos to get students excited about the project, including this hype video featuring Principal Jeremy Karel as an impressively resourceful squirrel.

Brody Ray finds a comfy seat right on the ground

Of Salamanders and Leeks 

A little way down the paved path from Camp Valley View, children’s voices waft out of a deep hollow in the woods. That’s where Tahlia Miller leads students on her nature explorations called Woods & Wetlands, a small business offering educational experiences in nature. In this case, the former Rockford teacher connected Valley View students’ outdoor learning to the book “Nuts to You.” 

Each class got to spend an hour in the woods with her, learning about acorns and oak trees, hunting up salamanders and tasting leeks. “A lot of kids don’t have the experience of just playing in nature,” she says. 

Kendra Austin’s third-graders do just that on a recent outing: clambering up a half-fallen tree, swinging on vines and digging in the leaf-strewn dirt. Miller tells them about the life of tree roots and the dangers of erosion, and has them write in their journals about their day’s experience. 

“I think it’s cool that I got to see a bunch of stuff that I never saw before,” says Ilah DeVries, carefully tracing a leaf. “I learned new things.” 

A third-grader’s sketch of what she learned about trees from both books and nature

“Exploring with a Purpose’

Both campsite and woodland exploration have been wonderful ways to get students away from screens and into creation’s classroom, says teacher Kristin Hubner, who coordinated the One School, One Book project.

“They’re discovering and exploring with a purpose,” Hubner says. “It connects the kids to nature and to the book.”

That’s exactly what Claire Kranzo is doing back at the campsite, intently reading a book on a log bench, a laptop on her knee.

“I like it because it’s nice and quiet,” she says of Camp Valley View. “You can be in nature.”

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio

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