‘Wild Child’ program gets kids into Rio forest, interests other schools

October 2, 2018

RIO – Kindergartners Mason Peterson and Audriana Luder declared they’d started a band as they banged together deer antlers in the school forest Monday.

Their teacher, Sarah Nogee, nodded in approval before she turned her attention to the half dozen or so children building a fort of out of sticks they’d collected earlier that morning.

“No one told them to build this,” the Rio Community School District teacher said of the roughly 4-foot-high structure. It required cooperation among the students as they carried materials from the woods and balanced them against a tree.

They took turns sitting at the top, demonstrating surprising levels of patience.

“It’s important for them to learn what to do when no one tells them what to do,” Nogee said.

Monday was the first day in the third year of Rio Elementary School’s outdoor classroom called Wild Child, held a few miles from the elementary school in a forest just off Highway 22. This is where about 80 preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students would determine, among themselves, the day’s activities. They were given boundaries relating only to their safety, Nogee explained.

Throughout the day her classroom of 20 students launched various projects or played improvised games within a section of woods cordoned off with pink tape tied to the trees. Next week they’ll use tools like rope, saws, potato peelers, shovels and rakes – and at some point they’ll likely catch moths and watch tadpoles turn into frogs in the pond near their classroom.

The kindergarten students travel to the school forest every Monday, even during the winter, excluding only the days during holiday weeks or for extreme weather. First-grade students – about 30 of them – spend half of every other Monday in the forest, while another 30 preschool students spend half of their Mondays in the forest every week.

“We came out here only once last year and could easily see the benefits,” said first-grade teacher Stacia Koenig, who is in her seventh year at Rio Elementary. This school year will be her classroom’s first full year participating in Wild Child, and more students and days in the woods might be added to the program in the future, Nogee said.

As Koenig explained the benefits of student interactions, first-grader Svea Bdozin approached her with news that one of her peers wouldn’t share a special stick, as he had promised.

“You’ll have to wait until he’s ready,” Koenig told Svea, who nodded forlornly but quickly moved on, without protest. A few moments later, Koenig quipped: “It’s awesome seeing them play without academic standards.”

The lack of associated curriculum exams can be a draw for teachers and students.

Regarding academic standards, Koenig said in today’s world “too much pressure can be placed on 5- and 6-year-olds,” but Wild Child gives them the opportunity “to be loud,” “to feel free” and “to learn at their own pace.”

Nogee and fellow 4-year-old kindergarten teacher Becky Bender highlighted the benefits of the program in April at an early childhood development conference at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Their key advice for other schools is simply committing to the idea of an outdoor classroom is, “You just have to do it,” Nogee said. “You need to make the time for it and start small, if you have to.”

Inspired by Wild Child, Lodi Primary School started “Nurtured in Nature” last year for its kindergartners, taking them into the woods near the school each Friday. Guidance counselor Valerie Bilkey, who heads the new program, said her school is starting small but could expand the program in future years.

“It’s free play,” Bilkey said. “They’re playing with all of the different loose materials around them -- like tires and pallets and sticks and logs.”

Nogee estimated that at least six schools had contacted her directly since Rio launched “Wild Child.” She and the other educators in the forest Monday said they’d be ecstatic to see more schools add outdoor programming in their school.

“It’s incredible,” early childhood special education teacher Kim Hruby said. “When things don’t work out as planned, they work it out with each other. When they can’t move a log, they ask their peers for help.

“They know it’s OK to get dirty – to dig around and make a mess,” she continued, noting how it is easier for her students to digest information about soil when it is in their hands rather than a textbook.

“They’re climbing, they’re jumping, they’re hopping, and we know they’ll focus better in the classroom tomorrow because they’re bodies got what they needed today.”

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