It’s a rainy day in Walker County, Georgia. In most schools, this would mean a day indoors with children and teachers wishing they could be outside. At Gilbert Elementary, you can look out the window and see a group of kindergarteners, in lime green rain suits, splashing their way across the playground on their way to the forest. These students will spend the next two hours making mud pies, building boats from found materials and observing the differences rain makes in their environment.
Gilbert is home to two Forest Kindergarten classes. Rain or shine, hot or cold, the students spend half of their instructional day in the 300 acres of forest. The concept is not a new one. Kindergarten after all means “children’s garden,” but in the days of high-stakes testing and ever-changing standards, the name has come to mean something very different. Forest Kindergarten is a return to the original intent. Students learn to be creative, solve problems and build relationships with their classmates and their environment.
The Forest Kindergarten program at Gilbert is in its third year. The students are performing above their peers on grade level assessments, and they leave the program with the relationship skills, creativity and grit necessary to be successful in the future.
When these students leave Kindergarten, they continue to have opportunities for outdoor and environmental education. The Gilbert Elementary curriculum is built around year-long research projects at each grade level. Kindergarten students raise chickens. First grade has a pollinator project with the Tennessee Aquarium. Second grade does a native plant study with partner schools from around the state. Third graders are organic gardeners. In fourth grade, students manage the forest. They use trail cameras to track wildlife and work with an arborist. Fifth grade focuses on energy conservation and alternative energy. There is also an indoor aquaponics lab, the SPLASH Lab, and a school-wide recycling program.
Gilbert Elementary is proof that change can be made in a traditional public school. The school is 25 years old. There were no grants or outside benefactors, no changes in requirements from the state and no overhaul of the staff. With 87 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced priced lunch, the staff relied on hard work and small donations to make the vision for the school a reality. Gilbert was named a 2017 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School, earned STEM certification from the state of Georgia and been recognized as a Title I Reward School for High Growth, all while moving away from the teach-to-the-test mentality that is so prevalent in education today.
The vision is expanding across Walker County. Other Forest Kindergarten programs are being planned; outdoor education and gardening programs are sprouting up at several elementary schools; and Ridgeland High School’s STEM academy incorporates agriculture in their program. The goal is to create a cohesive vision across Walker County that begins with Kindergarteners splashing across the playground on a rainy day.
Matt Harris is Principal of Gilbert Elementary School.
Damon Raines is Superintendent of Walker County Schools.