Forest Fridays get Winhall students outside

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MANCHESTER — The Mountain School at Winhall encourages students to view "Vermont as their classroom," and that belief has recently been put into practice by pre-K and kindergarten teacher Marisa Powers.

Inspired by both her own childhood and the one she's worked to provide for her two daughters, Powers has spent the last three years formulating her own "Forest Friday" program.

"My daughters have always really enjoyed building forts and playing out in the woods," Powers said. "I feel it has given them both a sense of confidence, self esteem and grit."

Each week, regardless of weather, her students — and Powers herself — break free from the confines of their classrooms to enjoy education in the surrounding wilderness. Students enjoy storytime around the campfire, play in the surrounding landscape, and pursue projects in subjects such as science, technology, engineering, and math (collectively known as STEM).

With individual "sit spots," students have even carved out their own space for solitude along the trails that they maintain. Often, a few moments of meditation will be savored on Friday afternoons, accompanied by birdsongs and the rustling of leaves.

"Students gain this sense of independence and confidence from taking responsibility for this part of our forest around the school," Powers explained. "They're learning to live in harmony with the creatures out there."

The program is part of a larger effort at The Mountain School to utilize the Vermont landscape, from getting into the natural world for field trips to constructing an "outdoor classroom" right in their own backyard. When Powers proposed "Forest Fridays" in her search for active learning opportunities, she said, the larger school community clamored to contribute.

"When Marisa began to explore the idea we had a bunch of parent volunteers come forward to help us develop this learning space," said assistant head of school Tony Kasulinous. "They donated some goods, as well as their time and efforts, and we created some logs out there that are cut into chairs."

"We have received a number of donations; including equipment, literature, parent guided lessons, and classroom building and maintenance," Powers said. "All of the parents have been really pleased and supportive of the program, and they are hopeful that it will grow with their students."

While many parents played a role in furnishing the program, both literally and figuratively, others have enjoyed the opportunity to spend time in the outdoors with their children's class.

"It's rewarding to see the number of parents who have joined the class and led their own activities," said head of school Peter Ahfeld. "[The program] also encourages collaboration and community, both within the Mountain School and our larger community, in the context of the natural world; which are foundational principles of our school."

Students are inspired

It's not just parents who have shown enthusiasm for "Forest Fridays," however. Despite Vermont's famously inconsistent weather patterns, Powers says that her students' spirits haven't been dampened yet.

"The students say that this is their favorite part of the school week," she boasted, noting that eighth-grade students also work with their younger peers for the program, practicing their own leadership skills.

"They have become real experts in dressing themselves, staying warm, and dealing with the elements — including pouring rain, cold temperatures, ice and snow."

"As the class meets at the end of the day on Friday, it is quite amazing to see how our students are excited right from the beginning of the day," Ahfeld added. "It has energized our teachers as well."

Though Powers admits that the program's inaugural year has presented its own challenges, she maintains that the experience of educating in the outdoors has been an enjoyable one.

"I enjoy taking a break from the confines of an indoor classroom," she said. "With all of the natural opportunities that being outdoors provides, there are so many ways to incorporate STEM and teamwork into our lessons."

"Not only does this give us a strong, hands-on, and inquiry-based education program that aligns with the new Next Generation Science Standards and uses early math skills," Ahfeld explained. "It also teaches collaboration and community as students are called on to work together, and to respect each other and the environment around us."

Having been in action for less than a year, Ahfeld asserts that "Forest Fridays" have already proven to be a unique and useful educational tool. Going forward, he says that Powers' program has inspired the school to continue seeking opportunities for outdoor education.

"Besides the obvious enthusiasm I witness firsthand with students and teachers, I have had parents talk to me who are eager for it to continue and expand," Ahfeld said. "At this point, every grade level has used the outdoor classroom; it's a huge benefit for all of our teachers and students."

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