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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Call Of The Wild: Kids Thrive In Wilderness School

Apr 24, 2020 06:18PM ● By Patricia Staino
Imagine a school day spent building forts and shelters, making pottery, identifying wild edibles and medicinal plants, and sitting silently in quiet reflection, observing the environment and journaling.

We’ve come a long way since “outdoor learning” referred to 20 minutes of recess on a blacktop parking lot. Today, educators and parents are recognizing the inherent benefits of children spending more time outdoors, exploring nature and balancing reading and writing with hiking, wildlife study and fire-making.

Two Coyotes Wilderness School is at the forefront of this movement in Connecticut; founded in 2000 as a nonprofit nature mentoring organization, its mission is to connect people to nature, community, and self. The school offers youth, adult and family programs, which take place at Sticks & Stones Farm in Newtown; Holcomb Farm in West Granby; and Chatfield Hollow Park in Killingworth. With Two Coyotes’ emphasis on mentoring, cultural practices, and personal growth, students learn about themselves and their place in the natural world. 

The school’s newest offering is the Forest Learning Program, which runs from September through June and is designed for children five to 12 years old. Once a week, children spend a full school day immersed in nature and experiencing core practices like gratitude, song and storytelling, as well as team-building activities with community celebrations that honor students and bring together parents, elders, and youth. 

“Our programs have an inherent rhythm and flow that create space for kids to move at their own pace, while we facilitate and guide them towards a goal, ensuring that they’re being challenged at their edge,” says Maggie Gotterer, executive director. “There’s room in our lessons to accommodate a diverse range of needs, so that every child can take what they need from a lesson but also be pushed in a way that is relevant to their learning style.”

The teaching style follows the “coyote mentoring” method, where lessons are indirect, yet transformational. Within this framework, nature mentors tailor each day’s activities to the needs and interests of the students, including comfort and familiarity with spending a full day in an outdoor environment. The program aligns with the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core State Standards; through mentor-led inquiry and process-based learning, children investigate the natural world, journal and research their findings, use observations to answer their questions, and synthesize facts into knowledge applicable to life. This cultivates students’ innate curiosity and a passion for learning that will serve them when they are back in the classroom.

The day begins and closes in a circle, where students share gratitude, stories of the day, and song. Mornings are focused on learning survival and naturalist skills, which deepen over the arc of the year as students observe, ask questions and apply their skills to hands-on wilderness projects. Afternoons are filled with storytelling, playing in the river and games that apply skills learned in the morning. Woven throughout the course are lessons in peacemaking and nonviolent communication, challenge activities and teamwork. 

“Because our program is built around mentoring, we intentionally build in challenges,” says Gotterer. “For example, if we have a child who doesn’t like bugs, we try to ease them into that relationship over time with increasingly challenging encounters.” 

While the curriculum is planned for each meeting day, it is flexible and responsive depending on the weather, the land and the children. Mentors bring unique and varied backgrounds to the school, so the activities they lead make use of their special talents as well as those of the students. 

“The mentors spend a lot of time at the beginning of the program getting to know the kids and drawing out their curiosities, learning what gets them engaged and motivated, what interests them, so they can tailor activities as the program evolves throughout the year,” says Gotterer.

Two Coyotes can report weekly attendance to a child’s school, and schools typically mark children as present for that day, likening the time to a weekly field trip or learning in an alternate environment. Former Connecticut Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell has indicated that a program similar to Forest Learning, operated by Common Ground in New Haven, is an excellent personalized learning opportunity for students and is an acceptable way to count attendance. 

“We have seen a big payoff for our students; after spending a day in nature, they are much more focused and engaged in the classroom the other four days of the week,” says Gotterer. “For some, they are more confident because they have friendships and connections outside of school, for others they thrive on the close mentorship that they receive from our staff, or being able to explore some of their academic curiosities in another environment. We receive great feedback from parents that this program has given their children another opportunity to learn and grow.”

The Forest Learning Program is offered for 35 weekly sessions from 9am to 3pm on Wednesdays at Holcomb Farm in West Granby and on Fridays at Sticks & Stones Farm in Newtown. The program includes an overnight in the fall and spring seasons. Tuition for the Forest Learning Program is $2,250, including the cost of both overnights. Tuition can be paid in full or on a monthly payment plan. Scholarships are available.

For more information, contact Executive Director Maggie Gotterer at 203-733-3951, [email protected], or TwoCoyotes.org

Patricia Staino is the managing editor of 
Natural Awakenings’ Hartford and Fairfield County editions.
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