While walking the trails of a nature preserve, most people are looking up into the trees expecting to see creatures and greenery, as leaves and grass crunch under their boots.
But on certain days at Merry Lea Environmental Learning Center of Goshen College, a Noble REMC member, visitors may also see a completely different sight – children silently writing and drawing their own observations.
It’s part of a pilot partnership between Merry Lea and Wolf Lake Elementary to create the Kinderforest program, which takes kindergarten students out of the classroom and into nature for a holistic approach to education. It’s also an initiative that was started with the assistance of a $1,500 Operation Round Up grant, supported by participating Noble REMC members, in 2017.
“Authentic experiences in nature can better prepare young learners for later in life,” said Marcos Stoltzfus, Merry Lea’s director of environmental education outreach programs, to educators across Noble County who are looking to jumpstart similar programs.
The education is directed by the students, who guide the discussions by what interests them and the teachers act as facilitators to “see what they can find out together.” This includes anything from splashing in puddles and collecting leaves, to balancing on logs and climbing trees.
A program founded in Europe, such forest kindergartens foster a sense of peace and pride; improve coordination and agility; provide opportunities for creativity; and build teamwork and leadership skills.
Wolf Lake kindergarten students visit the 1,200-acre site once a month, spending the entire day outdoors in rain, snow or shine. Through the program, they learn social, emotional, physical and cognitive skills, whether they recognize it or not.
“You have to learn by doing it,” said Wolf Lake Principal Robby Morgan. “There are so many things here that can’t be done in a classroom.”
The day is broken up into periods of time that include a first focus to discuss the day’s theme; a hike to their “sit spot” where they observe the nature around them and record any changes they see in the landscape; unstructured time for them to explore and learn social and leadership skills; and discovery activities, which let the children experiment and explore how to accomplish goals without specific directives.
While this is the first year for the program, Merry Lea and other schools are looking into how collaborations can be fostered for older children and other areas of the region.
“We don’t know where it might go, but we’re excited about the possibilities,” Stoltzfus said.
For more information on Operation Round Up, visit nobleremc.com or call the Noble REMC office at 800-933-7362.