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Learning alongside nature: Children dictate lessons at Philomath outdoor school

Learning alongside nature: Children dictate lessons at Philomath outdoor school

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Playing under gray skies with temperatures in the mid-30s on Thursday morning, students in the Philomath-based Fern & Feather Forest School enjoy trips down a “mud slide” — one child even went head first to make his way down on his chest and stomach.

For the preschool-aged children in the program, it must seem like the perfect world. They can get dirty and play in the mud and water, climb in trees and create with what nature has to offer. But this just isn’t playtime — it’s an education and it’s what Fern & Feather co-founders Kyla Basher and Brian Crosby envisioned when they opened up the outdoor school 12 months ago.

“From a curriculum standpoint, our philosophy is to let the children lead,” Crosby said about the approach to learning. “We don’t sit down at night and plan a curriculum for the next day; we come in and let the organic flow and exploration of the children dictate what we’re going to talk about and learn about.

“We have created a lot more structure, compared to when we started, with routine and flow,” he added. “But within that, there’s a lot of freedom to explore.”

It’s called emergent curriculum — a philosophy that’s dependent upon the children’s interests to guide the educators into a particular direction. When a child brings an idea, teachers utilize their experience and background in outdoor education to provide an on-the-spot lesson while in the moment.

“We’ll pop in with little lessons here and there unattached to whether or not the kids bite. If they do bite, then we’ll go ahead and go into more detail and if they’re not super interested, we’ll back off and continue with whatever storyline they have going on,” Crosby said.

A good example could be seen with that fun, slippery mud slide.

“We’ve had an evolving conversation around benthic studies — what mud actually is, how mud is created, the components of mud, the different types of mud,” Basher said. “So these are all different kinds of conversations that come up while we’re playing and creating. ... So they have to figure out — do they need more water to make it more slippery, do they need less water to go faster — different things like that. It’s all kind of this balance of a lot of questions and a lot of different answers.”

The outdoor immersion preschool marked its one-year anniversary last week. Three children attended in those early days with enrollment now up to 13. Operating Monday through Thursday, Crosby said daily “class” sizes range from five to nine students. The largest participation rate occurs on Thursdays and a part-time employee helps the co-directors on those mornings.

“We won’t have any more than 10 a day with the current staff,” Crosby said. “The more kids we have, the more we feel like it could dilute the experience of the other kids.”

If enrollment does continue to climb, the school will look into adding afternoon sessions.

“State guidelines restrict us to only having kids four hours a day,” Crosby said. “If the need gets higher, then we’ll try to open an afternoon session and try to run that as well. ... By the end of this year, we might be doing five days; we’re considering opening up Fridays.”

The school has also discussed the possibility of adding a four- to six-week summer program. The details are still being worked out, but Crosby said those would likely run two weeks at a time while working around events such as the Philomath Frolic & Rodeo in July and the Northwest Youth Rodeo Association event in August.

The state does not have licensing oversight with outdoor schools, although that may change within the next few years. A Portland-based group of graduate students are working on policy and even made a site visit to Fern & Feather while keeping Crosby and Basher in the conversation. Nationwide, Colorado and Washington are the only states to license outdoor schools.

Basher said they have learned a lot over this first year of operation.

“We find ourselves more self-motivated to learn more about the region that we’re in — the climate, the landscape, the flora and fauna,” she said. “We find ourselves really just self-motivated to self-educate constantly and learn things we don’t already know so we can know it in the moment.”

For example, a lot has been learned about the plants that can be found in their outdoor environment at the rodeo grounds.

“The kids can name up to nine different plants just here on the property without being told or really pointed in the right direction. They know what they look like,” Basher said.

The educators have also learned about creating relationships with their students on a very individual level.

“Beyond just the scope of typical child development, you’re really learning with the kids as to what it is, the amount of time they need, what they need and the support they need to really thrive and be successful,” Basher said. “And in doing that, you get a different relationship with our children here than what you might find in a typical preschool.”

Basher said they can see a timeline with the students’ growth, a shift that they see in the kids as their comfort level grows over time.

“This one here — he’s an extremely talented and persistent child,” Basher said as one of her students, Ike, walked up. “He’s been here for months and in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen this explosion of enthusiasm and willingness to participate with his friends than he had prior.”

Fern & Feather has extended beyond its outdoor classroom and into the community with what it calls “Family Fridays” every other week in the Corvallis-Philomath vicinity. The free event is not limited to the school’s families — it’s offered to all.

“The intention behind that is manyfold but it’s to introduce them to what we do and also just share with families where they can go and explore with their kids,” Crosby said. “Any family, any age kids, they don’t have to be (ages) 2 to 5. We want them to see that we can get outside and there’s a lot of people that want to get outside and create community around that and bring awareness to what’s available here.”

This month, the free activity meets Friday at Bald Hill (North) and on Jan. 31 at the Peavy Arboretum entrance for an adventure in the Calloway Creek area.

“It’s great for Brian and I — we enjoy just showing up for two hours and doing this completely unstructured, everybody-included forest walk,” Basher said. “The kids really lead it. We have a general structure but they’re dictating how long we linger, when the snack happens, and that really sparks a lot of different conversations among all the adults. ... It’s turned out to be a wonderful addition to what we do.”

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