The Lodi School Board approved Nurtured in Nature, a learning initiative that encourages kindergarteners to play, be outside and just be kids at its regular meeting Sept. 11.
Kids are under greater pressure to achieve high standards, and most are so overscheduled they don’t have time to simply be children, Lodi Elementary Guidance Counselor Val Bilkey said. Bilkey introduced the unanimously-approved program to the board via PowerPoint presentation.
Research also shows that young children who engage in some form of unstructured play have better language and social skills, the ability to empathize with their peers and achieve higher levels of thinking, she said during her presentation. Being out in nature reaps many benefits of their own, she said, including reduced anxiety and improved cognition.
“We are already noticing a difference in our students when they are engaged in free play versus when they are in a classroom setting or even outside at recess,” Bilkey wrote in an email. “They communicate, problem-solve, work together and are better able to naturally self-regulate.”
Superintendent Charles Pursell said Bilkey, who came up with the idea, first brought it up to kindergarten staff at the elementary school. They eventually brought it to the Curriculum Committee, which then made a full recommendation for approval to the board, he said.
“Before starting our Nurtured in Nature program, I talked to several educators who have started outdoor play programs,” Bilkey wrote. “These educators share their positive experiences and the impact it is having on their kids.”
Rio Elementary School and Hamilton Elementary School have already seen successes with a free play program, according to Bilkey. China, Japan and Finland are all countries envied for their academic success and high test scores, all achieved through this teaching style, she said.
“Dependent on funding, we would eventually like to go to the forest once in a six-day cycle,” Bilkey said during the meeting. “We would start with half days and work our way up to full days in the spring.”
From 8:30 a.m. to 1:45 p.m., the kids would be in an outdoor classroom in the woods. They would be provided time for unstructured play, a story and snack break, games, journaling and more activities, Bilkey said.
“We have already started implementing the program in small scale [on the primary school’s third terrace],” Bilkey wrote. “As soon as we have the funding available, we would like to partially transition to the school forest.
Bilkey said three classes would to go the forest one day, and two on another. Outdoor classrooms would be partitioned off using rope to create boundaries for students.
A safety plan is still in the works, but involves various means of student and parent education, including handouts for tick safety and a laminated flip chart about hazardous plants for students, she said. A first aid kit, EpiPens for allergies and cell phones would be provided as well.
Bilkey wrote there have been many donations for play materials and tools. There have also been donations of other supplies including tires, pallets etc. She said they need to find alternative funding for transportation to the school forest and for bathroom facilities.
“Now that we have board approval, I have started the grant writing process to find funding,” she wrote.
According to Pursell, the district will receive an additional $200,000 from the state for the 2017-2018 school year.
“This gives the board the opportunity to look at other initiatives and priorities because of working capital,” Pursell said.
Pursell said the additional funds come from $200 the state provides its schools for every student enrolled. The amount will increase to $204 in the next few years, he said.
The board hadn’t increased any numbers from the previous year, because they weren’t sure how much money the state was going to provide, he said. Now that the district has some funds left over, the board will determine how the additional revenue is best spent.
Other meeting highlights
• Pursell said construction on the new school remains on schedule. The board will soon have totaled expenditures, or money spent on the building, he said. He also said the board needs to examine where the latest construction bid dollar amount comes in, in terms of totaling the budget up for the new school.
• New topics were added to the middle school Human Growth and Development curriculum, including information on pregnancy prevention, how to access the Wisconsin Sex Offender Registry and an updated video about birth, according to board agenda documents.