Forest School: An Environmental Education

This article was written by School Day Programs Coordinator Abby Sussman, and originally appeared in Cascadia Weekly. Check out the full issue here.

Do you have childhood memories of daydreaming about being a squirrel and gliding from tree to tree in a forest? Can you recall getting lost in tiny worlds where beds of moss became sprawling forests?

Forest School, a new collaborative education program between Bellingham Public Schools and North Cascades Institute, strives to not only get kids outside, but also to facilitate meaningful experiences that inspire continued curiosity and wonder for the natural world. Taking place on the south end of
Lake Whatcom at the Gordon Carter Environmental Education Site, this one-day field trip is the latest iteration of a long tradition of outdoor learning in Bellingham.

Acquired by Bellingham Public Schools in 1954, the 120-acre site is a beloved community resource that has provided thousands of Bellingham children with the opportunity to explore our forest environment. From 1972-2007, Bellingham’s 9-year-olds dipped candles, churned butter and ate lunch in a reconstructed one-room schoolhouse as part of a unit on Washington state history.

Times and attitudes toward aspects of this curriculum changed, and lack of funding swayed the district to halt programming. Only seeing sporadic use since that time, the site has remained underused. That changed in 2013 when voters approved a bond for a feasibility study to consider the construction of an educational facility at Gordon Carter. By pushing learning outside classroom walls, the district’s vision is to create well-rounded graduates who possess a wide range of passions and experiences, and who are well-prepared for diverse educational and vocational options. Toward these goals, Bellingham Public Schools asked The North Cascades Institute staff to develop and manage Forest School, including the creation of a new curriculum, recruiting and training instructors and fundraising.

This new initiative builds on a strong foundation between the school district and the conservation-education nonprofit that has formed over decades of fifth-grader participation in Mountain School, the award-winning residential
environmental education experience at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Forest School— the first of many programs that will connect community members with learning opportunities further afield—extends the continuum of outdoor learning. Working directly with teachers and administrators, North Cascades Institute staff developed Forest School with an eye toward perspective building, sense of place, and Next Generation Science Standards. In small groups, students will explore the forest—building a nest for a flying squirrel, peering into decaying logs for beetle larvae, or drawing the woodpecker hotel of a snag. These experiential lessons incorporate inquiry, observation and reflection to investigate themes of habitats, adaptations and interdependence.

By June 2019, all third-graders in Bellingham Public Schools will have been encouraged to look for beetle tracks, explore the limits of camouflage, and work together to create habitats in miniature. Volunteer instructors and interns will guide students through active lessons that incorporate teamwork, observation,
problem-solving and creativity.

Parents and teachers will explore the expansive site with their children, gaining understanding about the natural world and each other, transforming Forest School into an experience for all learners, at all levels and stages of life.

Forest School is still seeking instructors for the Spring season. If you or someone you know has a passion for working with youth in the outdoors, please apply here.

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