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When Nikki Raney thinks about what skills she wants her third-graders at the Dothan Brook School to have when they grow up, she says that, “perseverance, kindness, empathy, and understanding come first to my mind. And the outdoors provides an authentic opportunity to build on all of these things.”

“Children today do not get enough time outside,” Nikki says. “There is so much right outside our windows and yet for many of our kiddos, they are not connected to this.”

Both of Nikki’s own children experienced an outdoor classroom at their school in Hartland. And through their stories and volunteering in their classrooms, Nikki saw first-hand the benefits it had on them.

Last year, Nikki’s third-graders earned a reward for tokens earned for positive behavior. They asked if they could have an extra recess and play in the woods. As soon as they ventured down there, Nikki was hooked. They started going every Tuesday afternoon. So, when planning for this school year, Nikki and her colleagues knew they wanted to make forest time a part of their weekly plan. This is how Forest Friday came to be.

Now, every Friday afternoon, Nikki and her colleagues take all third-grade students to their Forest Classroom, located in the woods behind the school.

“When outside, all children are seen as equal,” Nikki says. “Within the classroom, we have assignments, assessments and activities. Even though we actively try to highlight each child’s strength while working with them to build on their areas of difficulties, by third-grade peers start to notice each other and can tell you what they are “good” at versus what they “cannot” do. When we are in our forest classroom, these restrictions, these “cannots”, disappear. Students work together, problem-solve, and are more engaged.”

Nikki shared this wonderful story:
“This fall, students were immediately drawn to the brook portion of our forest classroom. Initially, they simply splashed, waded and crossed from bank to bank. After a few weeks, students began designing a bridge to make it across the water without having to get wet. Their first bridge was very simple in design, not very strong and simply blocked the water’s path. At that moment, I could have told my students what to do, giving them my opinion of what would work and why their design wouldn’t. Instead, I simply facilitated conversations amongst peers and gave assistance moving heavy objects if asked.

The following week, we got a lot of rain. This washed out their first bridge. Without prompting, students began having those engineering conversations about what went wrong, what could work better the next time, and what other problems might happen that they had to watch out for. Had I told them the week prior about these problems, they would not have made the connections they were making. They were invested in this bridge, and through trial and error they were able to make and remake a bridge that could work. Fast forward a few months, and this bridge is now completely encased in snow and ice. The water level has risen in the brook. This has led to new conversations about looking at the banks of the river and making predictions about how high the water levels could get based on the bank’s vegetation. I think the best part of this is the fact that the bridge still isn’t working. The children have been so engaged on the process, the “failed” product hasn’t mattered to them.”

Students take videos and photographs documenting their time in the woods and post their stories to this lovely website. Have a look.