For some of Green Bay’s littlest learners, the greatest classroom is the great outdoors.
They’re students in the Green Bay School District’s new nature-based 4-year-old kindergarten program. Dubbed the OAK (Outdoor Adventures for Kids) Learning Center, it’s a partnership between the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, the school district and UW-Green Bay.
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Working together, they’ve created a space where outside play means fun in learning for little ones. Students spend close to three-fourths of their time outdoors, replicating a nature-based model rarely, if ever, seen in public schools.
“When they work on shapes, they’re looking at, you know, things in nature — where can we find circles in nature?” said Associate Prof. Jennifer Lanter, Human Development and Psychology. “Well, we can find them in tree cookies. Right and we can play with those and stack those and look at those. So we’re building our fine motor skills and gross motor skills, working with that. But we’re also learning our shapes — some of those cognitive pieces as well.”
“I learn about trees and stuff,” said 4K student Oliver. “About nature.”
Added classmate Lily: “Now we know that worms can split in half and still survive. … We were learning and we didn’t even know it.”
From planning to grants and students who work with the kids on site, UW-Green Bay has been an integral part of the 4K program. Multiple majors are involved, embodying the University’s 360° of Learning approach.
“What I enjoy most about working with this program is seeing the 4K students grow,” said senior Education major Matthew Schilling. “On the first day, when I first started way back in February, to where we are now in mid April, they have come a long ways, socially and when it comes to schoolwork and stuff like that. So I think that’s been most rewarding to see that progress.”
Wildlife Sanctuary director Mike Reed, who conceptualized the program, said the partnerships that make it possible are invaluable.
“I think that the ability for the partnership with UWGB helped show that there would be the expertise and background available,” Reed said, “that made the school system comfortable with a pilot program like this.
The power of the partnerships — and the program — cuts both ways.
“It’s been a ton of fun,” said Associate Prof. Scott Ashmann, Education. “You can see it just in their eyes and in how they interact with each other, and with nature. It’s really been an incredible program to work with.”
“It’s a great learning opportunity and it allows I think our students to see that learning doesn’t just have to happen in the classroom — but that it can happen in nature too.”