Into The Woods, We Must Go
I am following a line of 3 year-olds into the woods. Their feet hit the soft carpet of leaves and pine needles with an energetic rhythm not yet syncopated to their fellow walkers as most older hikers would do.
They are led — and also followed — by Wheeler teachers, eager as they are to explore this section of the 120-acre Wheeler Farm campus. Driven by curiosity, the Early Childhood students from Nursery, Pre-Kindergarten, and Kindergarten explore the Farm with its fields and woodlands in a new program dubbed “Forest Fridays.”
Sunlight slants through the tall trees onto the Nursery students at the old Wheeler Pageant grounds, once home to faeries and other mythological creatures from past theatrical traditions performed nearly a century ago. Nearby at Wheeler Pond, headwaters to the Runnins River of Massachusetts, 4 year-olds build forts at their “Town Circle” noticing nearby beaver dams and building their own teepees with fallen tree limbs, while at a third location (each location was chosen by the students themselves) the kindergartners explore a smaller vernal pond; howling like pups in a wolf pack called to the wild then later turning into “chipmunks” at snack time.
“A vernal pond is a habitat and you shouldn’t throw things into it,” says a teacher. "But you can pull off this birch bark and examine the insects living beneath." Children gather tools such as rocks to open nuts and search the pieces inside. They make a seesaw from a log and a tree root and a “stew” in a hole filled with leaves. They rake the woodland floor with sticks and hang up their backpacks on broken tree limbs
Access to learning has no boundaries. And the teachers of the new outdoor program understand there are many benefits to this type of exploration. “There are a lot of benefits beyond just the academic,” says Nursery teacher Mo Abdalah. “Nursery students develop some gross motor skills being outdoors climbing and hiking. Kids in an urban environment all the time can develop sensory issues or sometimes behavioral ones, while you see much less of that when kids can get out into nature.” Their eating habits are more regulated, he explains, as well as their sleep habits.
Nursery teacher Michelle Dolan says the Forest Fridays “are amazing opportunities for students to discover nature, connect with nature and have the joy of playing in the woods. The program helps to build wonderful skills of resilience through play. They learn to be curious and inquire about nature, interact with the Farm’s ecosystems and challenge their physical bodies.”
The students from the three Early Childhood classrooms travel by mini-bus from the Providence campus to the nearby Seekonk Farm campus for each session. They have snack time as a large group under a sheltered pavilion then break into their separate grades before trekking to their special forested homerooms. They come back to Providence mid-day, happy and tired, and chattering about their experiences.
“Every time we are at the Farm,” says Dolan, “there’s at least one student in our group who will say to me: ‘This is the best Wheeler School Day ever!'”
The new program is a perfect fit for Wheeler’s Farm campus because after all, what happens on a farm? There’s plenty of water, sunlight and cultivated growth to help seedlings thrive.
By Laurie Flynn, Director of Strategic Communications
Photos by Tim Llewellyn, Copper Hound Pictures