Back to Nature  

How area educators are embracing the benefits of getting kids out in the woods

WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY JODIE TWEED

In Lake Country, we value our woods and waters. But how often are we, as parents, out exploring nature with our children? Are we just as guilty of spending too much time on our screens as our children and teens? Fortunately, we also have educators who are finding ways to incorporate nature into the curriculum, encouraging children to love the outdoors and become responsible stewards of our natural resources. 

In Breezy Point, a new forest preschool opened this summer and Eagle View Elementary, which overlooks Rice Lake, has its own nature center where students participate in outdoor learning. Crosslake Community School emphasizes nature and stewardship in everything students do, and Happy Dancing Turtle in Pine River promotes sustainability and environmental education through its summer EcoCamps for students in preschool through sixth grade. 

American children are spending five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen. 

It’s time we all exchange screen time for green time. 

Rachel Hodge at her nearly opened Ashdown Forest School in Breezy Point.

ASHDOWN FOREST SCHOOL

Rachel Hodge believes that children need to be outdoors.They need to sink their toes in sand, make mudpies, and create their own forts made of sticks and branches in the woods. And she hopes that parents in Lake Country feel the same way. 

In June, Hodge opened Ashdown Forest School in Breezy Point. It’s a nature-based preschool program for children ages 3–6 whose mission is simple: To get kids outdoors, rain, shine or snow. Hodge, who is originally from Zimmerman, Minnesota, has a bachelor’s degree in early childhood and elementary education. Her plan for her five and a half acres of land near Eagle View Elementary School is to replicate Christopher Robin’s Hundred Acre Wood. 

Deanne Trottier took her fourth-grade students in late May to the Eagle View Elementary School Nature Center for a tree identification project.

She and her partner, Jacob Longley, who also teaches at the preschool, have created several outdoor play spaces for their young students, including a sensory mud kitchen, a sand pit, a play space filled with big stones and rocks, and a small apple orchard they planted last spring. They plan to get alpacas, so their students can learn to feed and care for them. She also has a vegetable garden, which students will help care for, and the school has a vegetarian-based nutrition program. 

Hodge became passionate about the importance of unstructured outdoor play when she took a student internship on Vashon Island in Vashon, Washington, and later returned to the state to become certified as a forest kindergarten teacher through Cedarsong Nature School, a 100 percent nature immersion program inspired by European forest kindergartens. 

Michael Loeffler, 10, prunes dead leaves from flowers in the solarium at Crosslake Community School.

Her father, Mike Hodge, is a builder, and he helped her design and build a school building that promotes nature learning. It has a large open floor plan with big windows and a neutral color scheme that is calming and inviting. Hodge says her students will likely spend most of their days outdoors during the warmer months and they’ll get outdoors every day at least for a short time even during the bitterly cold winter days. At the end of each school day, the children meet and share what they learned that day. 

“In Scandinavian countries, most preschool programs are outdoors,” Hodge explains. “I just want kids to have their childhood. Children need to play and have fun. I see so many kids who are unhappy and anxious and it breaks my heart. My main goal is to see kids happy.”

CROSSLAKE COMMUNITY SCHOOL

Since Crosslake Community School became a public charter school in 1999, one of its goals has always been that students become good stewards and environmentally literate. A strong environmental focus is encouraged by its authorizer, Audubon Center of the North Woods, an environmental learning center based in Sandstone, Minnesota. 

Gensena Bye, a fourth-grader last May at Eagle View Elementary School, admires a bed of tulips at the school nature center.

Now in its new school building, Crosslake School has a solarium designed to bring the outdoors inside, especially during the cold winter months. Mike Stone, owner of Crosswoods Golf Course in Crosslake, helped school staff build an aquaponics system in the new solarium. Goldfish and koi can be found in a large tank, which filters into hydroponics garden beds that allow students to grow plants without soil. The raised garden boxes are filled with small clay pellets, which retain water and moisture. Other garden boxes contain soil and a variety of plants and vegetables, which students care for during the school day. The school also does composting and staff and students have been voluntarily adding biodegradable items to create composting material for outdoor flower beds. 

One day the school solarium may become home to critters like butterflies and birds. 

Todd Lyscio, executive director at Crosslake Community School, says four acres of wooded land near the school will soon be designated as a school forest. Science teachers have created an orienteering course in the forest, which also has paths. One goal is to create an outdoor classroom space within the forest. 

The future National Loon Center will be a short walking distance away from the school, and students already participate in activities outdoors at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site near the Crosslake Dam. In May Crosslake was designated as a Bird City by Audubon Minnesota, only the fourth Bird City in the state. “We’re excited because it’s all going to enhance our learning opportunities,” says Lyscio. 

The school is looking into developing solar resources to save on building costs and use as a learning resource for students, who will be able to monitor energy savings from a solar panel on the roof. 

Hunter White, a fourth grader last May, closely examines an apple tree at the Eagle View Elementary School Nature Center.

EAGLE VIEW ELEMENTARY SCHOOL NATURE CENTER

Deanne Trottier, a fourth-grade teacher at Eagle View Elementary School, was named nature center coordinator last year after retired elementary science teacher Jim Minerich, who started the school’s nature center, retired from the position. Her fourth graders go outdoors nearly everyday to do some nature journaling or participate in an activity. She teaches a week-long nature camp each summer through Pequot Lakes Community Education for students to explore the woods and wildlife around the school. This summer she added a kids’ hiking club, taking students to four different places in Lake Country to do some day hiking and exploring together. 

Emmitt Gaylord (left) and Adelynne Frank, both fourth graders last May at Eagle View Elementary School, use magnifying glasses in the school nature center.

She enjoys it as much as her students. Last year she became a certified Master Naturalist and is finding ways to support her colleagues in better utilizing the nature center as an outdoor classroom. As part of her certification, she created a tree identification course for students at the school. 

“It’s been a way for me to take something I love and tie it into teaching,” says Trottier, of the outdoors. “Kids love to be outside. We have this amazing space, and we know it’s good for kids, and we have to find ways to use it. I think ultimately, the more kids learn about the outdoors, the more they learn how to care for it.”

Crow Wing Energized donated funds to the school to purchase thirty-five pairs of snowshoes, so nearly all students went snowshoeing on the trails last winter with their teachers. Eighty-five percent of students said they’d never snowshoed before and a few of Trottier’s students got snowshoes for Christmas as a result of their newfound interest in the outdoor activity. 

Last spring, third graders composted three garbage bags of lunch leftovers. Each class plants flowers and vegetables in the outdoor garden beds each spring and harvests in the fall. Bird feeders were added near the large windows outside the cafeteria, along with birdhouses. Since adjacent Rice Lake is an environmental lake, it’s the perfect place for students to observe ducks, geese, eagles, and even a beaver. 

Trottier says she notices that her students are calm, inquisitive, and engaged in learning when outside. 

“I like to come out and see the natural world evolve around me,” explains Gensena Bye, one of Trottier’s students last spring. 

HAPPY DANCING TURTLE

Michelle Hoefs, program assistant at Happy Dancing Turtle in Pine River, is passionate about environmental education. For the past 10 years, she’s taught nature-based week-long EcoCamps for students in preschool through sixth-grade. The program is in its thirteenth year. Happy Dancing Turtle also offers classes throughout the year for students through Pine River-Backus Community Education. 

Emma Berglund, a fourth-grader last May at Crosslake Community School, waters the flowers in the school solarium.

“We’ve recognized the importance of getting kids outside,” says Hoefs. “If we start them young, teaching them about nature and getting them to appreciate the amazing things that are out there, they’ll grow to be those good stewards who take care of our earth and advocate for nature.”

Hoefs says they give children free reign to explore the woods and large garden at Happy Dancing Turtle, as long as they’re within sight of an adult. Children harvest produce from the garden, which is served by the campus chef for snacks. 

With so many children spending hours each day in front of screens today, Happy Dancing Turtle hopes to encourage them to get outside and play. 

“Kids only spend 4–7 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play time, which is where they learn the most and develop their motor skills and creative thinking,” says Hoefs. “There are physical, emotional, and academic benefits to being outside.”