HIBBING — A group of teachers wielding garden rakes, loppers, and two-prong hoes worked in the woods behind Washington Elementary School in Hibbing last Wednesday afternoon in the drizzling rain. They were busy cutting a trail through the woods leading to the school’s newest classroom: the school forest classroom, an outdoor educational space for students and community.
The idea came about last year when a student in Melinda Ruzich’s kindergarten classroom kept asking to go outside. “She’d say, ‘teacher, this is hard. When do we get to go outside?,’” said Ruzich while walking the school forest’s trail. “I learned that she had been in a real Kindergarten in Germany.”
Kindergarten in Germany is vastly different than America. In Germany, kids are in kindergarten between the ages of three and six and the focus is on play and self-led exploration. Children are not taught to read and write until the first year of school. Ruzich said that her former student was in a forest kindergarten—everything was entirely outdoors, regardless of the weather.
That innocent question, “When do we get to go outside?” got Ruzich thinking—her classroom looks out over a small paved area backed by a thick wooded area that covers approximately four acres. She started asking more questions and learned that school principal BJ Berg had helped to create a much larger school forest when he was an administrator in Carlton. Berg was all for it and pointed Ruzich in the direction she needed to take to get the ball rolling.
“It’s such a hidden gem,” Berg said while speaking of the Washington Woods. “It’s a great opportunity for kids to get out and be out in nature just outside our door. It seems that kids don’t get those opportunities any more, and kids that get into the outdoors are filled with even more wonder,” Berg continued.
Before she knew it, Ruzich had a team of teachers and administers excited about creating a school forest classroom. Meetings were held, grant applications were written, and paperwork and conversations were started with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. From there things, well, snowballed.
The group received a generous donation from the June Hendrickson Fund through the Hibbing Foundation. “We applied for $3,000,” Ruzich said. “And June upped it to $5,000,” she added with great appreciation. June Hendrickson spent her entire teaching career at the Washington school teaching sixth graders. “She had a math focus,” said First Grade teacher Christi Estey.
“Next fall, we’re going to install a bench right here,” said Ruzich, gesturing to entry point of the school forest classroom. “We’re going to have students paint rocks and surround the bench with them to thank Ms. Hendrickson. The bench will be dedicated to her and her continual support of education in Hibbing.”
The Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the MN DNR and Conservation Corps Minnesota projects collaborate together to build and improve school forest outdoor classrooms across the state. This trio was also another major funder.
“Another school had to drop out of the school forest program and they called and said they could send a team to us this week, so we have a team of three people here from the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa helping us cut and clear trails,” Ruzich explained. The team estimates this was about a $3,000 grant.
They also received a $500 Community Sustainability Grant at Earthfest that was held earlier this year in Mountain Iron, and were awarded an additional $200 for winning the people’s choice award.
“It’s really hard to believe this was just a deer trail through the woods on Monday,” Ruzich said. “When we’re done, it will be entirely handicap accessible,” she added, stating they’ll be able to use the school forest year-round.
Coming to a standstill in a larger clearing, Ruzich shared that this will be the classroom area and described the work and partnerships that will go into finishing this space. Groups like the boy scouts, local 4H, and the MN DNR will be doing various service projects to help furnish the classroom. “The DNR is going to have volunteers build and donate field desks for us,” Ruzich said.
“Our goal is to have Forest Fridays,” Ruzich said. “There’s such a big push for state standards, and we recognize that students need unstructured play time outside in the woods. We have some students who have never been ‘into the woods’ before.”
Kindergarten teacher Lindsey Jones agreed, “kids need nature to destress, it gives them a chance to relax. That fresh air is good for them.”
Nearby the teenage children of the Washington teachers continued to trim roots and branches, and haul garbage out of the woods. “This is nothing like Minecraft!” exclaimed Ruzich’s son, Nicholas, who’ll be entering eighth grade next year and enjoys building things in the virtual world of Minecraft, a popular video game.
During a break from the drizzle and the work, teachers Jen Forer, Denise Massich, Estey, Jones, and Ruzich stopped to look around at the area they helped to create and got excited talking about how they’ll each use the new space next school year.
Massich, who teaches Kindergarten, plans to have students identify trees and bring her class outside to teach stories in the forest. Estey is looking forward to taking a more hands-on approach to teaching science standards, “it won’t feel like teaching standards at all,” she said.
“I’ve spent so many years looking at the woods, it will be great to go into the forest next year,” Forer added.
“I’m excited to see what it ends up becoming,” Berg said. “It’s a great opportunity and there’s a lot of passion and interest by staff and that parlays to the students too. There’s lots of opportunities out there.”