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Peek Inside the (Outdoor) Classroom: JNC’s TreeSchool

Peek Inside the (Outdoor) Classroom: JNC’s TreeSchool

As lunchtime wraps up, Ms. Leigh and Ms. Tracy can be heard calmly preparing the students to go outside, with questions and prompts like “Do you need to use the restroom?” “Time to gear up!” and “What do you think you need to put on first?” These three- and four-year old children are part of Johnson Nature Center’s TreeSchool, an early childhood enrichment program where outdoor education is the heart of how kids learn and play. This snowy, chilly day is the first time that the children have been indoors for lunchtime, since the “real-feel” was 10 degrees in the morning. The sun comes out to warm everyone up, as students line up to go outside for the afternoon. 

Children huddle around Ms. Leigh on the outdoor bench as she sings, placing each child’s name into a verse. After the song, Ms. Leigh explains that they’ll explore underneath downed trees to discover the important jobs that the trees have, like protecting small animals from predatory ones. The students, referred to in the Wednesday TreeSchool program as “Frogs,” are asked, “How many ‘ribbits’ should we do to get ready for the hike?” The kids decide on 3 small, 1 big. They all say, “ribbit, ribbit, ribbit, RIBBIT!!” and take off down the trail. 

Along the way, children stop to play on some downed tree trunks. Covered with light snow, the trees function as a beautiful playscape. Two parallel trunks can work as balance beams, or a boat that kids can sit in and row. One child discovers a piece of corn within a hollow log that’s been eaten by an animal. Another finds an animal hole in the ground. Suddenly, everyone becomes still as a bird calls. Ms. Leigh pulls out a phone app for identification: a Carolina wren. She pulls up a photo so the kids can see what the bird looks like. Ms. Tracy finds a bunch of frozen berries, and the children take a close look, guessing what kind of plant they think it comes from. Ms. Leigh spots a frozen mushroom, and reminds the students that they previously learned about mushrooms and used them as stamps. Tracks in the snow prompt a look at the Animal Track Guide in Ms. Leigh’s back pocket. 

As the exploration hour draws to a close, the class finds a sunny spot of fresh snow, and play, making snow-angels while listening to music. The day concludes with Ms. Leigh drawing a heart in the snow, each child taking turns sharing what or who they would like to wish well. Parents congregate to say hello and pick up their children, while their children shake musical eggs and bounce to the last song of the day. This sunny, snowy day at TreeSchool is magical!