By Megan Michelson

The kindergarteners are sliding down a sheer, snow-pillowed boulder into a field of freshly fallen powder, as echoes of their laughter fill the forest. Clad in bright-colored insulated clothes, they’re all chiming in with wonder at the natural slide they’ve just created. When one boy finds his foot stuck in the deep, frozen muddle, a friend comes over to help dig him out. They call it friend patrol.

It’s a Wednesday in early November and several feet of snow from an overnight storm have buried the students’ outdoor classroom. They are among 234 pupils attending the free, independent Creekside Charter School in Olympic Valley, which serves pre-kindergarteners through eighth grade. Most of their fellow Creekside students are taking their classes indoors. These kindergarteners — between the ages of 5 and 6? They spend the entire day outdoors. Every day.

For about 45 minutes, the kids have been playing freely in the woods, supervised yet undirected. Kindergarten teacher Theresa Anderson and her teacher’s aide, Kristina McCarthy, are nearby, but the students are free to roam and explore within a given range. Activities like tree climbing and rock jumping are fine as long as they’re within the realms of safety. Mostly, the kids are encouraged to play, create, work together, and let their imaginations and nature chart their course.

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STUDENTS WALKING to their outdoor classroom at Olympic Valley’s Creekside Charter School sometimes trek through waist-high snow. Photos by Ted Coakley III/Moonshine Ink

Learning outdoors

This is forest kindergarten, Tahoe style. The 20 students in the class spend all school year outdoors in a makeshift classroom set in the woods near Olympic Valley’s Granite Chief trail, about a tenth of a mile from their campus. To reach the classroom — which is made up of a few stumps in a circle — in the winter, the kids trudge uphill, often through waist-deep snow, carrying backpacks loaded with lunch, spare gloves, and extra layers. “This is a good place to begin to develop that mindset of ‘I can do hard things,’” Anderson says.

Creekside’s forest kindergarten program is in its third year. It was first spearheaded by Anderson in the fall of 2020 in the midst of the Covid pandemic. The move to an outdoor classroom happened to coincide with a growing national trend, accelerated by the pandemic, to move classroom settings outdoors, where the benefits for kids’ development run the gamut from improved social skills to increased creativity and self-confidence to a stronger connection with nature.

Anderson, who’s taught kindergarten at Creekside for 12 years now, was getting her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction when she began researching forest kindergarten programs around the country and found herself drawn to the many benefits of schooling young children outdoors.

TEAM EFFORT: Creekside Charter School kindergarteners work together to unbury their classroom after an overnight storm. Shovels are passed around and digging is a team effort. Under the snow is a white board and a bin full of school supplies.

“I was reading about the need for play, the need to be outside, the need to direct their own learning through play,” Anderson says. “Before this program, I was giving kids 15 minutes here or there to play, but in that timeframe, they don’t have the time to develop their games and scenarios and creativity and work out the problems that arise.” Knowing a wilderness setting surrounded the school and she was at a charter school that supports creative thinking, she approached Creekside’s principal, Jeff Kraunz, who was on board.

“We try to support the autonomy of teachers, whether it’s through their curriculum or the ideas they have,” Kraunz explains. “Theresa said, ‘I’d really like to pilot an outdoor classroom.’ I said, ‘Great.’ That was in the works even before the pandemic and just coincidentally had really great timing.”

In the fall of 2020, when every school in the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District was on remote or hybrid learning schedules due to the Covid pandemic, Creekside opened for in-person learning and the kindergarteners ventured out to their forest classroom.

“My approach the first year was, ‘Let’s see what happens,’” Anderson says. “I didn’t have any expectation that we would not come inside at all. The object isn’t to torture anyone.” With proper gear and warm clothing, the kids did great outdoors all winter long. (Admittedly, the program isn’t for everyone; but in the two full school years they’ve run the program, only one child has left because it wasn’t a good fit.)

“That first year, we all acknowledged that we were going into this as a trial and would pivot if needed,” says Sara Satinsky, whose son was in that first class in 2020. “For my son, having the space to play and learn without walls around them gave him a great sense of independence. He got to learn with sticks and rocks and snowballs and a teacher who said, ‘These are our boundaries, and we trust you to be responsible,’ while teaching what that meant.”

During the past couple of years, Anderson has dialed in her classroom setup, fine-tuning the toilet tent (the kids use a pee tree and a wag-bag system inside a tent) and the classroom supplies, like a weather-resistant whiteboard and waterproof tubs full of notebooks and pencils that need to be dug up after storms. If families can’t afford proper snow gear for their kids, the school’s parent-teacher organization has donations of warm coats, boots, and gloves available.

LOTTERY: Twenty kids are enrolled in the kindergarten program this year at Creekside Charter School. There is a competitive lottery system to get into the program, which includes kindergarten through eighth grade.

Origins in Europe

Forest kindergarten began in Germany decades ago, in a program called waldkindergarten. Similar programs have existed in the U.S. for about 15 years, but recently, we’ve seen a big spike in this style of learning. The number of forest kindergarten and outdoor preschools in the U.S. more than doubled between 2017 and 2020, according to the Natural Start Alliance, which estimated there were over 580 programs around the U.S. in 2020, with every state having at least one program and California, Oregon, and Washington, among others, offering dozens.

The pandemic turned even more schools on to the idea of moving classrooms outdoors, where the spread of the virus was less likely in fresh-air settings.

That has also coincided with a shift in the approach to kindergarten curriculum, with a growing movement in some schools to reintroduce play-based learning. In years past, kindergarten was a chance for young children to adjust to their first school setting, with play and socialization being the priority over academics.

But a shift happened over the years, and kindergarten became much more rigorous, with 5- and 6-year-old kids being required to pass strict benchmarks in reading, writing, and math. A 2016 study conducted at the University of Virginia titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?” compared kindergarten classes from 1998 to 2010, and found the classes had become more academically driven and less focused on self-directed exploration, social skills, and play.

Anderson says the kids who come through her program may not have as strong an academic foundation as those from other area schools, but that in kindergarten, this shouldn’t be the focus. “I’m hopeful that we’re building physical and mental stamina, so that even if they don’t know all the various academics, they’ve got confidence, they’re creative thinkers, they’re collaborators,” she says. “So that once they’re introduced to new concepts in first grade and beyond, they’re going to pick things up a lot quicker. Studies show that developing the whole child, having those play experiences, is going to set them up for success in the future.”

Parents weigh in

Some parents have chosen this program for those exact benefits. “My son is a very active type of boy,” says Liz Wilson, whose child is in this year’s class. “I wanted his experience at school to be one where he grows to love learning and being outdoors and not stuck in the classroom with worksheets.”

Wilson has been a school psychologist at Truckee High School and North Tahoe School and now works part-time as a counselor at Creekside Charter. She hopes the benefits of her son’s first year of school will last well into his older years. “Here, they have these long periods of play — like an hour and a half where there’s very unstructured play,” Wilson adds. “They just get to free-play with the other kids. That’s where a majority of their learning happens.”

Back in the forest classroom at Creekside on that snowy November morning, an exposure to the chilly air leads to a moment of learning. One boy’s hands are cold; he’s whimpering. Anderson asks for input from the other kids. “What’s a good way to solve this problem?” she asks. “Who can give ideas?”

Other children offer up suggestions: Put on dry gloves; move your hands around; go into the sun. The boy follows his peers’ advice and soon he’s back to happily playing in the snow.

Later, Anderson will explain that those moments of problem solving and teamwork are the real learning opportunities in an outdoor classroom. “It helps form a cohesive class. We do so much work with their social-emotional development that they seem a lot more resilient,” she says. “That’s partly due to the program, but also because this environment gives us those opportunities.”

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