ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
American kids are spending less time outside. Even in kindergarten, recess has been cut back. It's a trend that worries public health experts and some educators, too. They say by keeping kids inside to focus more on math and reading they're missing out on what going outside can teach. Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks has the story of a Vermont teacher who ventures out with her students for an entire day every week.
EMILY HANFORD, BYLINE: It's called Forest Monday. Teacher Eliza Minnucci had the idea after seeing a documentary about a forest kindergarten in Switzerland where kids spend all day, every day, outside.
ELIZA MINNUCCI: And after the video ended I said, oh, I would do that in a heartbeat, thinking that's a pipe dream. We're in a public school in America. That's not going to happen.
HANFORD: But her principal at the elementary school in Quechee, Vt., said try it one day a week, so she did.
MINNUCCI: Are these your forts?
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Yeah.
RILEY TOWNSEND: This is my sit spot. Welcome.
MINNUCCI: This is what?
RILEY: This is my sit spot. Welcome.
HANFORD: His sit spot - a kindergartner, Riley Townsend (ph), welcomes me. Every Forest Monday starts with kids going to their special spots under a tree, on top of a log. They sit quietly alone, observing the environment.
What are you noticing is different in nature this week?
ORION BEE: Um.
HANFORD: This is another student, Orion Bee.
ORION: There is more moisture in the air.
HANFORD: Moisture in the air, yes.
There is moisture in the air. When I visited back in early April, the snow was just starting to melt. Next up - playtime.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: Jackson, they're blowing up.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.
HANFORD: This is a group of kids playing "Transformers." Down by the stream, two boys are building a dam.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: I can't move it.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: We can move it.
HANFORD: Teacher Eliza Minnucci is standing about 20 feet away.
So as you're watching these kids, what are you seeing in terms of what you were thinking about?
MINNUCCI: I see some amazing grit. There was just a boy who was trying to bring a downed, somewhat rotten tree, and he figured out how to roll it. He saw he could get leverage with one of the branches. You know, we're supposed to study force and motion in kindergarten. We're supposed to work on having ideas and testing them.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: Come on guys. Build the dam.
MINNUCCI: I love watching the kids out here.
Are you ready to write another word?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let me take a picture of it.
MINNUCCI: We're going to make the word is. This was one of our sight words.
HANFORD: It's not all free play in the woods. Here the kids are using sticks to write words. Making an S turns out to be a bit of a challenge.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: Yeah, I'm going to get some curvy sticks.
MINNUCCI: I don't know if there are any curvy sticks. We might have to make it with straight lines.
HANFORD: There are a lot of adults out here in the woods - an aide, a special ed teacher, some volunteers, including a dad, Chris Cooper.
CHRIS COOPER: I just 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.
HANFORD: And what do the kids think? Here's Jacob Tyburski.
What do you like the most about Forest Monday?
JACOB TYBURSKI: That we get to play and we don't have to stay seated forever.
HANFORD: Eliza Minnucci says when she started this experiment two years ago, she knew it would be good for the rowdy boys.
MINNUCCI: The other part that we did not expect was that the kids who did - who do really well academically, who are, for whatever reason, able to sit at a table and work when they're 5 years old, who had not really ever met a challenge in their school life, got outside and had to deal with challenges.
HANFORD: Clearly, there's a lot these students are learning out in the forest, but what about test scores? They actually went up. Going outside didn't necessarily cause test score growth, but it didn't hurt. And principal Amos Kornfeld says he doesn't need standardized test scores to tell him Forest Monday is a good idea.
AMOS KORNFELD: I think we're a society or a - not us in terms of schools but it's being forced upon us as data is the answer to everything and we're human beings. You can only measure so much.
HANFORD: Kornfeld says he'd like to see forest days in the upper grades too because when the kids come back from the woods they look happy and healthy. He thinks schools should be focusing on that as much as they're focusing on test scores. For NPR News, I'm Emily Hanford.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.