Kids in the U.S. are spending less time outside. Even in kindergarten, recess is being cut back. But in the small town of Quechee, Vt., a teacher is bucking that trend: One day a week, she takes her students outside — for the entire school day.
"I would do that in a heartbeat," she thought to herself. Then reality hit. "We're in a public school in America. That's not going to happen."
But her principal at the Ottauquechee School in central Vermont surprised her by saying: Try it.
Every Monday morning, the kids suit up for a day outdoors. Rain or shine — even in the bitter cold — they go out. They head to the woods next to their school where they've built a home site with forts and a fire pit.
First thing, the kids go to their "sit spots." These are designated places — under a tree, on a log — where each kid sits quietly, alone, for 10 minutes. Their task is to notice what's changed in nature since last week.
"There's more moisture in the air," a boy named Orion Bee tells me. An astute observation: It's early April on the day I visit, and the snow is starting to melt, making the air feel slightly soggy.
Playtime is next. Kids run around and do all kinds of things they're not allowed to do inside, like yell and throw things. Down by the stream, two boys are working together to build a dam.
"We can't roll it," says one boy, pushing with all his might to try to move a downed tree onto the dam.
"We can roll it!" insists the other boy. They push and push, to no avail. Eventually, one of the boys realizes he can get leverage using the tree's branches. Teacher Eliza Minnucci is standing about 20 feet away, watching.
"We're supposed to study force and motion in kindergarten," she says — and these boys just got a real-world lesson. "Outside offers so much," she says. "It is sort of the deepest and widest environment for learning that we have."
There are formal lessons in the forest, too. After playtime, the kids visit learning stations. At one, they paint using natural materials. At another, they make letters out of sticks. One girl struggles to make an "S."
"I'm going to get some curvy sticks!" she declares. Realizing that curvy sticks are hard to come by, she soon comes up with the idea of making a backwards "Z" instead.
"Kids are so resourceful out here," says Minnucci. "In the classroom, we chunk everything into small pieces. We teach them discrete skills and facts and they put it together later. That's a good way to learn, but it's not the way the world works," she says. "I like giving them the opportunity to be in a really complex place where they need to think about how to build a dam with a peer and at the same time, think about staying dry and staying warm."
There are very few rules in the woods. Take care of yourself, take care of others, don't wander too far away; that's pretty much it. The goal is to let kids experience independence and help them learn the self-regulation skills that are so important to becoming a successful adult. Minnucci points to a kid sitting in the stream.
"It's 33 degrees out. He's sitting in water. And he's going to figure out whether that becomes uncomfortable or not," she says. "I don't need to make a rule for him. He's going to figure that out. This is a place where he can learn to take care of himself."
Minnucci worries that U.S. schools have become too focused on academics and test scores and not enough on "noncognitive" skills such as persistence and self-control. There is growing attention on the importance of these skills, but Minnucci doesn't think traditional school is set up to teach them very well.
Forest Mondays, however, provide lots of opportunities.
"I see some amazing grit," she says with a smile, looking over at the boys who have successfully moved the downed tree onto their dam.
At Ottauquechee School, taking children into the woods requires more adult supervision. Grants pay for an additional forest day teacher. And most Mondays, there's at least one parent volunteer. Chris Cooper comes often.
"I like spending time with my son," he says. "I think it's a really great idea that they get the kids out. They're able to just kind of explore and figure things out on their own."
And what do the students think?
"We get to play and we don't have to stay seated forever," says kindergartner Jacob Tyburski.
When Minnucci started this experiment two years ago, she knew it would be good for the rowdy boys, who clearly need to run around more than the typical school day offers.
What she didn't foresee was how good it would be for the children who can sit still and "do" school when they're 5 years old.
Kids who are good at school need to understand there's more to life than acing academics, says Minnucci. And students who aren't excelling at the academic stuff need to know there's value in the things they are good at.
Clearly there's a lot students are learning in the forest. But what about standardized test scores?
Minnucci says scores went up more last year than any other year she's been teaching. She's quick to point out there could be lots of reasons for that.
What her students gain from the experience might not be measurable, she says, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
Her principal, Amos Kornfeld, agrees. He says schools are being forced to think about everything in terms of data and measurable outcomes, but he doesn't need test scores to tell him forest kindergarten is working.
When the kids come back from the woods, they look happy and healthy, he says. "Schools need to be focusing on that, too."