The Nature of LearningJanuary 26, 2018
Story by Leann Burke
Photos by Jacob Wiegand
Fallen leaves rustled under the feet of a pack of preschoolers as they trudged through the woods at Camp Carnes in Jasper one September morning as part of their lesson for the day, but they weren’t on a field trip. A hike or two is part of the everyday routine at Little Spruce Nature School.
That week in September, the students were studying shapes. As they hiked along, they looked for different shapes in the fallen leaves and in the designs the bark made on the trees as they grew. When the class returned to the shelter house, they created their own trees. They drew the trunks, added tissue paper leaves and finished with animal stickers.
As Will Knies, 5, finished his tree, he stuck on an owl sticker, then added a squirrel eating a nut, a bird eating a worm and protecting her eggs and a drawing of the spider web he saw on the hike that morning. To top it all off, he drew in the solar eclipse from August, which he proudly said he watched.
Head teacher Lindsey Groth founded Little Spruce in 2017. She and her family— husband, Chris, and their two kids, Maddie, 6, and Sam, 2— moved to Jasper from Arkansas a year and a half ago after Chris got a job at MasterBrand Cabinets. Maddie attends kindergarten locally, and Sam will attend Little Spruce next year.
Groth holds a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education from Antioch University New England and is certified to teach preschool through fifth grade. In Arkansas, she taught fifth grade at a Title I school.
Once, while teaching about photosynthesis, she discovered that some of her students didn’t know that leaves changed color in the fall. She took her students outside to look at the changing colors and realized how much kids can lose by not being outside.
She thought back to her graduate school classes with David Sobel, a pioneer in the nature preschool movement. Sobel focuses his research on place-based education that gets students outside the classroom and into the world where they can get hands-on experience. In a paper titled “Place-based Education: Connecting Classroom and Community,” Sobel wrote, “Place-based education is the process of using the local community and environment as a starting point to teach concepts in language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. Emphasizing hands-on, real-world learning experiences, this approach to education increases academic achievement, helps students develop stronger ties to their community, enhances students’ appreciation for the natural world, and creates a heightened commitment to serving as active, contributing citizens.”
Groth took her professor’s teachings to heart.
“The more research I did (on nature schools), the more I realized we need it,” Groth said. “If we need it, who’s going to do it?”
When she moved to Dubois County, Groth saw that there weren’t any nature schools nearby (the closest one is in Noblesville), and she decided she could provide such a school. As she looked for locations, she came across Camp Carnes, the former Boy Scout camp on Jasper Dubois Road. The location had everything she needed: trails for hiking, a shelter house and an outdoor play space. She put together a business plan and information about nature schools, then presented her plan to the Jasper Parks Department. In April 2017, Groth got permission from the Jasper Parks Board to hold classes at Camp Carnes.
In Little Spruce’s inaugural year, Groth and Carrie Holdsworth are teaching 11 4- and 5-year-olds — the pre-kindergarten level — on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Tuition is similar to conventional preschools.
Although the school year is only half over, families are lining up to enroll for next year. So far, 15 families are interested in the pre-kindergarten program, which means Groth will likely need to hire another teacher. For safety reasons, Groth keeps her student-to-teacher ratio close to 5-1. She also wants to add a class for 3-year-olds next year. That class will be capped at eight students, and six families are already interested.
The question Groth gets most from parents is, “Will my child be ready for kindergarten?” The answer, according to research, is yes.
With regard to reading and writing, studies have found that early literacy is connected to speaking and listening. In a November 2016 paper about outdoor classrooms and early literacy, Joanna Wright, then a lead teacher at Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle, Washington, wrote that phonological lessons are often interwoven with outdoor activities at nature schools.
At Little Spruce, for example, when students learned about the letter T, they went outside to look for items whose names start with T. Then, they came back to the shelter house and wrote the letter with their fingers in pans full of sand or snow the kids made with kits.
In another paper, Gwen Dewar, a researcher trained in anthropology, behavioral ecology, primatology and evolutionary and comparative psychology, found that hands-on lessons like those provided at nature preschools help children learn how the world works and lay the groundwork for science, technology, engineering and math.
The students at Little Spruce are encouraged to ask questions and observe the world around them. On a hike one December day, Will Knies was looking among the gravel on the path when he saw something that didn’t quite match the rocks. He took a closer look and found a fuzzy cocoon-like object on a leaf. He picked it up and ran over to Holdsworth to show it off.
“I’ll tell you how I found it,” he said. “It was laying on the ground, and I thought it was a pebble or a little marble.”
Turns out it was an oak gall, which is a mound of plant tissue that a tree creates around a parasitic gall wasp larva that grows in the center of the mound. The class took it back to the shelter house, and everyone got to look at it before it was returned to nature.
At Little Spruce, Groth combines the Indiana preschool standards and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Growing Up WILD curriculum to give students outdoor lessons that teach the same skills as a conventional preschool.
“It’s just different plays on the same lessons, but to (Ryan) it’s fun,” said Karen Legris of Jasper who sends her 4-year-old son, Ryan, to Little Spruce.
Ryan also attends preschool at Holy Trinity Catholic School, and Karen sees a lot of overlap between what he learns at the two schools. For example, he’s learning to write and read letters at both schools, and is learning school etiquette such as raising your hand to speak and sitting still. Karen describes Ryan as “a firecracker” who likes to be outside, get dirty and play with bugs. She wanted Ryan to get as much school experience as possible before kindergarten next year, and Little Spruce seemed to fit his personality.
When Jillian Becher of Jasper saw an article about Little Spruce, she knew it was the perfect school for her son, Crew, 5. Crew had already completed a year at a conventional preschool, but Jillian thought Little Spruce could be a good fit. She liked the idea of tactile lessons where the students get to see what they’re learning about. Now, she likes hearing Crew talk about what he did during school. One day, Dana Reckelhoff, the interpretive naturalist from Patoka Lake, brought a hawk to the class, and Crew told Jillian all about it.
“He loves hawks now,” she said.
A couple weeks ago, the class learned about snakes and hibernation. Crew touched a snake, and now he wants one as a pet, Jillian said.
“He enjoys it,” she said. “I never have to push him to go.”
Ashley Quade of Jasper sends her daughter, Ruthie, 4, to Little Spruce and has nothing but good things to say. Ruthie is also enrolled in Holy Trinity’s preschool part time. Ashley wanted Ruthie to have school every day as she prepared for kindergarten, so she enrolled at Little Spruce as well.
Looking back, Ashley said, Little Spruce would have been enough. Through the classes at the nature school, Ashley has seen Ruthie’s attention span lengthen, and she’s learned all her letters. Ruthie calls Little Spruce “adventure school,” and she’s always excited to go.
Although the students spend a lot of time doing outdoor activities, Ashley said Little Spruce is 100 percent education, and it’s perfect for 4- and 5-year-olds.
“You can only be a kid for so long,” Ashley said. “Why not learn something while being a kid?”
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