Ridges Forest School teaches kids to explore their natural surroundings
When the Gibraltar Area School District’s daily 4K classes at Gibraltar and Northern Door Children’s Center began last year, The Ridges Sanctuary in Baileys Harbor reimagined one of its programs that used to educate those children. The result was Ridges Forest School, which takes place from September through June, 9-11:30 am, three days per week. The new program takes the place of the former Dragonfly program.
“We had a preschool, and with the public schools opening up that preschool program and after-school care, that market felt a bit saturated,” said Jane Morse, Ridges Forest School teacher. “The next age group that we saw as underserved, especially with homeschool families, is that 5- to 10-year-old range.”
Baileys Harbor parent Jennifer Davis said she finds Ridges Forest School’s nature-centered lessons valuable for her daughter, Elizabeth, age 6½, who started developing reading skills before she was 3 and could follow recipes in the kitchen soon after that.
As she talked, Elizabeth ran around in the falling snow, and classmate Mathius, 10, showed her how to get shelter from the wind under a picnic table and in between white cedar trees.
“I love that she gets an opportunity to play outside with her peers for several hours a day, and to be active out here in all weather,” Davis said. “It makes her really confident outdoors. My husband has a background as a nature guide, ski guide and kayak guide, and so he and she do all kinds of great things outdoors, and she’s the first one out the door all the time.”
Davis said she and her husband, who work from home, homeschool their children using an educational program built from various curricula and workbooks. Ridges Forest School enables Elizabeth to enhance her own exploration.
“It sparks her imagination and things she wants to learn and explore, and we take that information at home, and we learn more and do a deeper dive,” Davis said.
Each day, parents or caregivers drop off students for the school – usually outside The Ridges Nature Center in Baileys Harbor, but sometimes elsewhere within The Ridges’ 1,400-acre main sanctuary, or even west of Clark Lake at The Ridges’ Logan Creek land. At the Nature Center, students start each day by looking for signs of wildlife and filling bird feeders and other feeding stations.
On this cold day in January, they headed back indoors for an hour. One student, Archer, age 7, went outside to read the thermometer and then added a point for that on a chart the class was keeping for the month. Morse provided help with phonics as some students jotted daily notations on the chart. Mathius went out to measure the snow, but he observed that it was still piling up and drifting. Morse said the weather observations that month helped the students learn about building and using graphs.
Rather than reciting the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, a student shares what he or she is grateful for that day. One week, the students came up with ideas for ways in which animals could cross Highway 57 and then drew posters of their proposed wildlife corridors.
On this day, Morse and Jackie Rath, teaching assistant and Ridges program coordinator, led the students in a lesson on skulls, working with real animal skulls and some in an ABC book. Morse – who is retired after 26 years as a paralegal in the U.S. Air Force and has a degree in environmental conservation and a minor in biology with an emphasis in soils – told the students to note the positions of the eye sockets on the various mammals. She said impalas’ eyes, for example, let them see most of what surrounds them so they can watch out for lions.
“Eyes on the side, likes to hide. Eyes in the front,” Morse said, with the children joining her, “likes to hunt.”
They also talked about the gait of various animals: how humans plant their entire foot and are “plantigrades,” while canines and felines are “digitigrades,” and horses and deer are “ungulates,” with hooves.
“I know what hooves are made of,” Archer interjected. “It’s called keratin.”
After the lesson, the students donned their layers of outerwear and headed outside to check the feeders, look for tracks and take a hike.
This day, they experienced lake-effect snow falling more heavily in Baileys Harbor than in other locations on the peninsula. During the hike, Morse and Rath talked with the students about what they were seeing along the boardwalk and at Hidden Brook, then turned them loose for play time in an off-trail location that’s reserved for the children.
There, some of them had previously built a crude shelter from fallen branches. The children similarly piled up twigs and smaller branches to create a shelter for rabbits. As two girls started playing in the shelter, three boys ventured onto the ice on a narrow swale in the woods. After 20 minutes of all the children sliding on the ice and a few imagining that they were gathering snow for pancake batter, the group resumed its hike and then paused for five minutes of quiet time. Seated on the boardwalk, with large snowflakes falling on their jackets, they listened to sounds of wind in the trees and waves rolling onto the Lake Michigan beach about 600 yards away.
Morse and Rath said they guide the children to learning opportunities – such as going to see an eagle’s nest near Baileys Harbor and participating in Audubon’s backyard bird-feeder observations – and they watch for other teachable moments.
“The idea of an emergent curriculum is for them to discover things and for us to lay back and watch and see what interests them. We take it from there,” Morse said.