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Into the Woods

Into the Woods

Waukesha Freeman 01/15/2015, Page A01

Waukesha County schools look to forests as alternative classrooms

Freeman Staff

WAUKESHA — While schools look to create modern learning environments for 21st century students, a new kind of classroom is springing up around Waukesha County that is about as old they come.

Teachers are increasingly taking their instruction to outdoor classrooms as part of a statewide program that allows schools to own and manage their own forests.

The Lake Country, Hartland- Lakeside and Mukwonago school districts are among those in Southeastern Wisconsin to participate in the program. The Arrowhead Union High School District is currently seeking certification.

Run by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Forestry Division and University of Wisconsin- Stevens Point, the school forest program — also known as LEAF — has been around since the 1920s, but has had increased popularity in recent years thanks to publicity and a change in certification standards, Forestry and Outdoor Education Specialist Gretchen Marshall said.

“Statewide, we saw eight new forest parcels in 2014,” Marshall said. “And that’s pretty consistent with previous years. But in the Waukesha and Milwaukee County region, I would say it has grown exponentially in the last few years.”

Over the years, the program has decreased its acreage requirement for school forests. A school once needed as many as 28 acres to establish a forest, but it can now qualify with just one acre, Marshall said.

The change allows Mukwonago’s Eagleville Elementary School students in a 1.2 acre forest to enjoy a similar educational experience to their peers in more wooded areas like the Rhinelander School District, which has 1,200 acres of forest.

“It’s the same thing, but they are just using it in a different way or on a smaller scale,” Marshall said.

Outdoor classrooms

Surrounded by wooded areas, the Hartland-Lakeside School District enjoys 30 acres of

school forest between Hartland South and Hartland North elementary schools. The schools have created an outdoor education facility by installing benches and

instructional materials in the forest, Superintendent Glenn Schilling said.

Schools with certified forests have access to grants related to environmental education and forest management. They are also partnered with state foresters to develop a forest stewardship plan for the parcel of land.

“That generally means keeping the land healthy and, for smaller parcels, it usually means invasive species control,” Marshall said.

A 29.7 acre forest at Lake Country School was recently certified. The school’s outdoor curriculum includes invasive species removal and plant and leaf identification, Lake Country School District Superintendent Mark Lichte said. Next year, Lichte said, the school hopes to qualify for a $20,000 grant to restore a hardwood native tree species.

Lichte said the outdoor instruction is a big hit among students and offers them a unique opportunity to be in nature.

“We’re utilizing our grounds in a manner that teaches kids who might not have a lot of outdoor experiences, teaching them what are hardwoods versus softwoods and what a prairie is,” he said. “I think it’s invaluable.”

Hands-on learning

While environmental education is a focus of the program, Marshall said forests also enhance a district’s curriculum in other areas.

“You can teach about the forest while you teach about other subjects too,” she said. “So students are still learning math, social studies, history and English when they’re in the forest and at the same time they can learn about the forest itself.”

With new state standards now emphasizing nonfiction and informational literature, forests provide a setting conducive to reading about ecosystems, pollution and plant life, Schilling said.

Marshall noted anecdotal evidence suggesting outdoor settings aid instruction. She recalled stories of students who ordinarily struggle to produce a paragraph being able to write with ease when in the forest.

“There is an atmosphere change, it allows them to be creative, and then they recall and remember better,” Marshall said. “It’s hands on and it’s bringing the real world into the classroom.”

Schilling said the program provides practical applications for learning.

“One of my concerns for a long time with learning is, in order for true learning to take effect, there has be a connection,” Schilling said. “If you can’t think outside of the realm of where you’re learning something, it won’t stick.”

But when students in the forest connect science and math principles to, for example, growing season cycles, it becomes more meaningful, he said.

“Seeing these kids, they’re learning so much,” Schilling said. “To them, it’s enjoyable. They know they’re learning and they can tell you what they’re learning. To see that, you sit back and think, wow, we have all these resources, we can’t keep kids confined and think that’s all the learning there is. We need to expand learning.”

Email: landerson@conleynet.com

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