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'The kids can take a bit of a mask break': Local teacher says 'Nature Kindergarten' brings back normalcy for students

Posted at 2:31 PM, Aug 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-13 19:22:06-04

SUSSEX -- — When school starts, tree stumps will serve as desks in Peter Dargatz's Kindergarten class at Woodside Elementary in Sussex. He started what's called Nature Kindergarten here six years ago.

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"They feel like kids, it doesn't necessarily feel like school to them and they're learning when they're not really expecting to," Dargatz said.

Because of COVID-19, Dargatz says the relevance of his ongoing nature kindergarten program is resonating, especially since experts say the risk transmission of the virus is lower outside.

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Click here to see the Hamilton School District's video of the outdoor kindergarten class in its first year.

"The kids can take a bit of a mask break, there's more space to spread out, they can engage in their environment," he said.

For Dargatz, it's also bringing back a sense of normalcy for kids who have missed playdates for months during the pandemic. He started the outdoor classroom after a student of his was excelling academically, but struggling socially. He said play-based outdoor learning made a difference.

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"For our kids to be in Mr. Dargatz's class, it allowed them to be younger longer," said mom, Laureanna Raymond-Duvernell. "If there's anything that the COVID-19 experience has taught us is time outdoors is beneficial for your mental wellness," she said.

While our state doesn't mandate specific types of instruction, this summer Wisconsin's Department of Public Instruction issued a back to school guidance plan, which mentions schools can use outdoor learning spaces as a way to promote socially-distanced learning.

"In my program, we go outside every day. We like to say we start and end each day with natural play," Dargatz said.

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"In winter people like to think that we shut down and don't go outside, but we go outside every single day. There's really no such thing as bad weather, it's mostly bad clothing," he continued.

With COVID-19 remaining a serious threat, Darrgatz expects to spend all day outside if possible with his kindergartners.

They have access to a massive field behind the school for space.

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"Elements can actually be applied regardless of how much green space a school has," he said.

"What about those parents who think you know what, my kid will just think it's playtime?" Kristin Byrne asked Dargatz.

"One of the big ways that I answer those questions is to invite the parents in. When they see the excitement, when they see the engagement, when parents see that, what they're learning, they're connecting and they're happy, then that's truly what matters," Dargatz said.

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For parents and teachers interested in outside classroom curriculum ideas, check out the below links.

Other links about outdoor learning:

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