Every morning Melissa Toll, Elachee Nature Academy’s kindergarten and first grade teacher, hikes with her students through the woods — rain or shine.
Spending time in the outdoors is an important aspect of the academy, which focuses heavily on instilling respect for nature and independence.
“I think a lot of people in general have lost touch with nature because of all the technological advancements these days, and I think it’s important to bring them back out here,” Toll said. “They’re happy to be out here and learn. They just thrive.”
Spending the day outside doesn’t take away from the children’s educational experience, according to Toll.
When hiking, the kids identify trees, insects and other wildlife they encounter. Oftentimes they’ll write down their findings.
Since the beginning of this school year, the students have conducted science projects by taking photos of Joro spiders in the woods.
For the past couple of years Joro spiders — which are widespread in China, Korea, Japan and Taiwan — have taken up residence in Northeast Georgia.
Toll said students enjoy pointing out the large yellow spiders and sending their findings to a research group at the University of North Georgia Gainesville.
“They take pride in knowing that they’re helping scientists,” Toll said. “We see about 10 on the trail every day. We talk about how the female is larger than the male and the different layers of the web.”
Last year, Toll’s class conducted a science project involving trillium.
They sectioned off an area on the trail where the trillium grew abundantly and watched the flowers each day, counting how many were fading or dead.
In the spring, Toll’s students will do the same project with wildflowers.
“I love just learning new stuff,” Matteo Poloney, a 6-year-old at the academy, said. “I learn about the new leaves, bugs and nature.”
Elachee Nature Science Center serves around 40 students year-round in its nature academy, which includes preschool and K-1. The school is accredited through the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Melissa Reid, Elachee’s director of schools, said the academy embraces independence.
“We don’t do things for our children, we make them do them,” Reid said. “If you teach them at an early age how to take care of themselves, then they feel more invested in the program. And they feel confident and better about themselves.”
While walking on their morning hikes, the children will voluntarily pick up trash, move insects out of the trail’s path and avoid stepping on roots.
During the fall, they especially take a liking to collecting leaves and loudly identifying them in front of Toll and their assistant K-1 teacher, Rainey Ladd.
Although the Elachee property is full of many tree species, there’s one giant white oak that receives the most praise.
“My favorite tree is the Mother Tree,” 5-year-old Elsie Hatch said while gazing up at the white oak.
The children pay regular visits to the “Mother Tree,” and eat their morning snacks beneath its branches.
“They’re very conscious and mindful of the things out here,” Toll said. “Learning outside teaches them to appreciate the things we do have, because who’s to say how much longer we’re going to have it here.”