Most 5th and 6th graders right now are enjoying outdoor activities during their summer vacation. But at one public school, the outdoors is part of the curriculum, year round. The school aims to turn kids who love the outdoors into lifelong stewards of the earth. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton reports:
Most fifth and sixth graders right now are enjoying outdoor activities
during their summer vacation, but at one public school, the outdoors is
part of the curriculum, year-round. The school aims to turn kids who love
the outdoors into lifelong stewards of the earth. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tracy Samilton
(Sound of sawing wood)
Sawing logs is hard work, especially for fifth graders like Amelia, Leoni,
and Taylor. The results can be seen in this rustic, but sturdy log cabin
overlooking the Goodwillie Environmental School. The cabin was built almost
entirely by the fifth grade class in half hour shifts, because the work is
“We worked on the chinking, the floor inside here – I did that
chinking! And then we worked on the floor inside here – and
when we get enough bricks, that’s what the fireplace is going to look like.”
The students get most of their instruction in science, math, history, and
other subjects as they hike through the woods or work on an outdoor project
like the cabin. Of course, they spend some of their time in the classrooms
in the southwest Michigan school. But today, volunteer George Stegmeyer is
building a kiln, where he will fire raw bricks for the cabin’s fireplace. The
bricks were made by the students with mud they dug from the grounds.
Stegmeyer explains how the hot air will move through the kiln and then blast
through the chimney.
“Just like firing pottery, it reconfigures the molecules so that they are no longer water-soluble.”
The students call Stegmeyer “grandpa,” an example of the extended family
atmosphere of the school. Only about fifty children are selected each year:
the ones who show a passion for the outdoors. Parent Peter Chan says it’s
not for every kid, but he wishes all school districts had an option like
“I spent from sunup to sundown, most of the time, I can remember playing outdoors, if not exploring
the fields, the farmer orchard, or the woods by my house. Unfortunately
today, children don’t have that experience.”
Chan went to a similar school when he was young. He’s now a meteorologist.
He’s enthusiastic about his son having the same opportunity. Some of the
parents might worry that their child could fall behind in traditional
coursework here. But fifth-grade teacher Rick Gillett says there’s nothing
to fear. Students consistently score one hundred on the state’s annual standardized
test, all without “teaching to the test.”
“For instance, in the science test, when you get into the physics, in inclined planes and pulleys,
when you’ve actually used them in building the log cabin, it makes sense. You really understand how
the physics work.”
Gillett says he doesn’t expect every student in the outdoor school to become
a biologist or forest ranger, but he does expect the school to make a
lasting difference. He says some of his former students have come back
to see him when they’ve reached college age. He says that’s when it really
seems to sink in how much they learned here.
“I really do… I think that once it’s in your heart you’re never going to get it out of
That already seems to be the case with most of the students. Fifth-graders
Spencer and Evan can’t wait until sixth grade, when they’ll have a chance to
tackle a project in the Native American village that’s tucked into the woods
below the log cabin. They show off the two buildings that previous sixth
graders built: an Ojibwa smokehouse and a winterhouse.
“This is the inner bark of basswood it basically ties whole thing together, holds it up. These go
down about five feet into the ground, these go down about ten feet into the ground, so as you can
see it’s very, very sturdy.”
This fall, a brand new group of fifth graders will arrive at Goodwillie
Environmental School. They’ll take up where the last class left off and
build the fireplace for the cabin. Along the way, they will also pick up
the knowledge, experience, and passion for the outdoors that will help them
be lifelong stewards of the earth in years to come.
For the GLRC, I’m Tracy Samilton.