Students at the Elachee Nature Academy gathered on an outdoor balcony around teacher Melissa Toll Monday afternoon for an unconventional lesson in math and science.
Toll showed the class, comprising kindergarteners and first graders, photos of the five different types of spider webs and explained how to identify them in the wild. The students then walked down the balcony stairs and onto the Elachee Nature Science Center’s Geiger Trail, making a short hike to an outdoor classroom furnished with wooden benches and a stage for teaching.
As the class moved through nature, students pointed out the spider webs they saw, while teaching assistants made a tally of the total number and the types of webs the class passed. An hour later, Toll showed the students how to document their findings on a bar graph.
Monday was the first day of the school year at Elachee, and while schools of all levels have scrambled to adjust their curriculums and protocols to keep kids safe from COVID-19, it’s been a seamless transition for the nature-based program, according to director of schools Melissa Reid.
Prior to this year, Reid said Elachee students would spend around 60% of their time outside learning. In an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the school plans to bump that up to around 90% to 95% this year, according to Reid.
Students are outside for lunch and snack times and even go on regular hikes, incorporating exercise into the curriculum. Reid said while the decreased risk of spreading COVID-19 is a positive of outdoor classes, learning outside provides plenty of benefits for young children that have nothing to do with the pandemic.
“Getting to be outdoors, they learn to feel an appreciation for nature,” she said. “These kids come away from here and they continue playing outside. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Monday’s lesson on spiders is the type Reid said the pre-K and K-1 students at Elachee go through every day. The school’s experiential teaching strategy is far from the norm for early education, but Reid said it is much more effective at getting kids to retain the material they learn.
“When you tell somebody something, they remember a little,” she said. “But when they experience it, they remember a lot. That’s just been wonderful to see.”
Despite most Elachee classes being outdoors, Reid said the school is still taking precautions to keep students and staff safe. Teachers wear protective face coverings whenever they are inside, and students are being socially distanced as much as possible even when outdoors. Teachers have also been emphasizing the importance of regular hand washing, encouraging students to sanitize their hands periodically throughout the day.
In between indoor activities, Reid said she has personally been disinfecting classrooms in an effort to keep things as clean as possible.
As another school year at Elachee begins, Reid said the ultimate goal remains creating “nature stewards” who will one day take over at the Elachee Nature Science Center and continue to preserve and learn about local plants and animals. Lessons on nature taught at the school are designed to stay with students for the rest of their lives and instill an appreciation for nature that never leaves them, according to Reid.
“We teach them to appreciate the things around you, be amazed at what you see,” she said. “It’s just neat to see their eyes light up.”