School's out . . . outdoors, that is
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Sep 04, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

School's out . . . outdoors, that is

St. Marys Journal Argus

Stew Slater

St. Marys Journal Argus

As parents get back into the routine of seeing their kids off to school each day, one potential point of contention looming in the not-too-distant future (very soon, indeed, if you believe those weather prognosticators calling for snow in September) is the fight over warm clothes. As many moms and dads know, fashion and convenience often trump health and safety when it comes to a schoolkid’s winter wardrobe.

Not so the students of the Forest School program at Little Falls Public School — at least according to a trio of parents from last year’s inaugural edition of the groundbreaking program, which hosted an Open House at its Wildwood-area farm venue last week, in advance of this school calendar’s jump from one Forest School classroom to three.

“Forget about dresses and leotards and all that fancy stuff,” declared mom Karen Hammond, as she assisted with one of the tour stops during the Open House, held Wednesday, Aug. 27 at the home of Cobi and Steve Sauder. In 2013-14, Hammond’s daughter Jessica was a member of the single Grade 3 class from Little Falls — taught by Martin — that spent almost every Wednesday at the Sauder farm, rain, snow or shine.

After only a couple of last year’s memorably cold days, Hammond explained, it was clear Jessica knew exactly what she needed to wear — not just for Wednesdays, but for every day, since Martin ensured that a good part of many days was spent outside, even if that meant on the Little Falls schoolyard. And there was never any argument: longjohns, raincoats and dressing in layers was something the class learned about and understood.

Another of last year’s Forest School parents, Christina Clinton, noted that safety in the cold weather was the first of a one-two punch of concerns shared by Grade 2 parents going into the program’s 2013-14 inaugural year. The other big question was the capacity of Martin and Sauder to meet curriculum requirements in such a unique teaching environment.

“It didn’t take long to see what excitement this program brought to our daughter, and how eager she was to learn in this way,” Clinton explained. She described the outdoor approach as a “perfect counterbalance” to the ever-increasing reliance in today’s classroom setting on communications technology as a teaching tool.

Speaking to the Journal Argus during the Open House, Little Falls Principal Helen Brockman said it will cost approximately $30,000 to run the program this year, as opposed to a little over $10,000 last year. Two more classrooms, both Kindergarten-aged children, will be added to the Forest School schedule.

Busing to the site is covered by parents, under a model that allows families to pay what they can, while others can anonymously contribute more to cover any shortfall. One of last year’s parents made a four-figure anonymous donation after the conclusion of the 2013-14 school calendar in an effort to help ensure busing remained accessible to all this year’s families.

Significant expenditures that must be covered outside the regular school board funding envelope, however, include paying for outdoor education facilitator Cobi Sauder, as well as insurance, and any maintenance issues required by insurance. Before last year, Brockman explained, an insurance company representative toured the property and identified a number of things that needed to be dealt with. These included some stairs that needed to be upgraded, a new door in the upstairs of the barn, and the widening of some paths through parts of the property.

For this year, debris and any new growth had to be removed from those same paths.

Insurance requirements also dictated that Sauder and the Little Falls teacher each has a walkie-talkie to allow for communication no matter where they were on the property. Each of them also has a first aid kit with them at all times.

It was a sunny evening for last week’s Open House, but it was also the end of August, and when the sun began to set a chill hit the air. It had the potential to serve as a reminder of last winter’s severity, and how tough it was some days to even step outside your front door.

“When kids are cold, we deal with it right away,” Martin stressed, as she spoke to this year’s Grade 2 and Kindergarten families. “We don’t allow kids to stay out here in the cold.”

And, as Hammond reiterated, they certainly weren’t “left in the cold” when it came to learning.

“I have to admit I was really skeptical about this at the beginning of the year,” she said, “but it turned out to be so fantastic.”

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