By John Fitts
COLEBROOK — It’s been nearly 30 years that Canton Public Schools have sent kids back to nature.
Specifically the school district partners with the non-profit outdoor education organization Nature’s Classroom to offer sixth graders a near week-long experience. This year, some 135 students went to Camp Jewell, a sprawling paradise of more than 500 acres, complete with cabins, recreational areas, fields, a lake, hiking trails and farm animals.
While there, students participated in educational hikes, recess-like transition times, live performance skits, story times, group activities and outdoor classes that explore such areas as aquatic life, geology, biology, nature-based art, ancient skills, and haiku.
Students get to choose classes based on their interests and each incorporates elements of math, science, english, art and more.
“It’s all the disciplines we teach but it’s just in a whole different environment, with a different group of students and a different instructor,” said sixth-grade teacher Patrick Allen, who is also the district’s Nature’s Classroom Coordinator.
Students also participate in a several hour hike around a pond where they learn to cook over a fire, practice for their skits and learn about animal habitat, flora and geology.
One emphasis during the week is IALAC, which carries a lot of variations but essentially stands for “I am Loving and Caring.” Students document and award pins and necklaces for kind actions.
Being away from home and working with others has life skills advantages, Allen said.
“It’s also the confidence that it builds in each individual student, who may or may not have been away from home,” he said. “A lot of them think I cant do this at the beginning but like anything else in life, you take those different step and you can accomplish it. I see a lot of growing up happening.”
Often kids are grouped differently than they are back at CIS. School principal Kevin Hanlon said the whole experience touches on so many levels of education and socialization. He said it teaches problem solving, communication and persevering through challenges – in a unique context on beautiful grounds and with passionate teachers. It changes the students.
“It is visible once they return to school,” he said. “They come back collectively as a class a little bit differently after a nature’s classroom experience.”
The experience is also good for the teachers, Allen said.
“It’s nice to see kids being kids outside of the structure of a normal class period,” he said. “You get to spend time. You get to know a little bit more about them. That bond is now just a little different than it was when we came up here. We go back to our routines at school but it’s more enhanced.”
For many, it’s also the highlight of sixth grade. Allen runs into countless graduates who still talk about it.
“The experience itself is really powerful,” he said.
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