Taking the Classroom Outdoors: Forest Fridays at Ridge and Valley Charter School
On a cold morning in March as my students saunter into the classroom, I hear the words, “Yay, it’s Forest Friday!” I frequently hear this announcement on Friday mornings as students arrive to the Honeybee classroom. My co-teacher, Lisa, and I are often packing our wagon with Forest Friday supplies and preparing tea for later in the morning when fingers begin to chill and energy runs low. Excited and ready for a day outside, students eagerly prepare by putting on their appropriate gear for the weather, because come rain or snow, the students know that we will be outside for at least three hours.
Sit Spots and Nature Connection
While the entire time we are outside is beneficial, the most important part of Forest Friday is the time at our sit spots. A sit spot is a special place in nature that one goes to often to sit and observe what is going on around them. Jon Young, a famous naturalist, tracker, and author, describes them as the “magic pill” for nature connection. In school, we use them as a way to connect to the local landscape, and as a jumping off point to tie together many topics we study in the classroom. By using sit spots in this way, it allows us to create an experience where our students take the the academic skills they are learning in the classroom and use them in an authentic way.
The standards-based academics can be seen from the moment the students circle up after their cooperative, free play time in the woods. They quickly run and grab their foldable chair and form a circle. We take turns reminding each other of the various senses and awareness skills we should use during our sit spots. If we have the pleasure of having a parent volunteer join us that day, the kids also take a moment to tell them what sit spots are and how we experience them. Next, we pull down the “veil of silence”, signifying that it is time to honor only the noises of the forest. Finally, we head off slowly “fox walking”, a more complex way to tiptoe, to our sit spots.
Each child has their very own sit spot, and they know exactly where they are headed once the “veil of silence” has been pulled down. The children form a deep connection with their individual sit spots and when a guest joins us for the day, such as a parent volunteer, it is often a place they are very excited to share.
Connecting to the Local Environment is Paramount
This connection to our local environment is considered paramount by professor and author, Dr. David Sobel, who specializes in place-based education. The idea is to not spend too much time focusing on studying a far away bioregion, but rather to see the beauty and learn about our own valuable flora and fauna in our own backyards. By taking the time to study the environment in which one lives and experiencing it first hand, a child will form a connection and gain knowledge of the land. This way of learning is more meaningful than reading about a landscape in a book or seeing it in a movie.We sit for ten solid minutes. This is a lot to ask of some five and six year olds, but we have increased the time throughout the year to match their greater stamina. The hope is that they will realize that the more still they sit, the more they will see and hear and experience.
As we sit there, I see a student cup their hands behind their ears as they use their “deer ears” to hear more. I see another student quietly digging a small hole with a stick they found at their sit spot. They use their “racoon touch” as they run their fingers through the dirt. Some have a relaxed look on their faces as they lean back in their camp chairs and look up at the treetops and the sky. Another student is intensely following an insect as it walks across the log in front of them. All of these activities are acceptable for sit spot time. It is these experiences that the students will use in their journal entries
After ten minutes sitting and observing the world around us, I softly bang a drum, which is the signal that sit spot time is over. The students quietly walk back to our circle area, sit down and begin drawing and writing their observations. One student is writing about a spider that visited him at his sit spot. Another student draws a picture of a dark bird that soared overhead. Their focus during this time is incredibly intense. All I can hear are the birds chirping and pencils and crayons being pulled this way and that way across their papers. When people begin finishing up, we have circle, where we take turns sharing the various stories of what happened during our individual sit spots. As each child speaks, the rest of us listen and sip on warm, berry flavored tea. The tea heats my insides and perks me up, as it seems to do for the children as well.
Circle Time and Tea
This circle time gives students a chance to work on all areas of literacy, which include reading, writing, speaking,and listening. From writing down their experience to listening to their classmates, the students are using their literacy skills in a way that is relevant to them. These skills are experienced directly, rather than indirectly, creating a more meaningful educational experience. Each individual journal entry is placed in the child’s nature journal which has become a record of the advances the children are making in their literacy studies each week.
After each student has shared their sit spot story, the students dash off for another short cooperative free play time. We will make the hike back to the classroom after a math activity and more cooperative play time. It is amazing how fast three hours can go by when you are outside.
I announce the plan to head in and one student asks, “Why is it time to go in?” I explain that we need to eat lunch and let people use the bathrooms. That response is followed by, “But, I’m not hungry!” and “But, I don’t need to use the bathroom!” Another student chimes in saying, “I can’t wait until next Forest Friday!” I smile and follow a gaggle of happy and hungry children back to the classroom.
Young, Jon, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown. Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature. Shelton, WA: OWLLink Media, 2010. Print.
Sobel, David. Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms and Communities. 2nd ed. N.p.: Orion Society, 2005. Print.