Teachers throughout the county have embraced the concept of bringing learning outdoors, from hikes down trails to classes on a patch of lawn, but students in the Montessori program at Solon Springs School have taken the idea one step further.

Every morning, roughly 60 students in first through sixth grades hike 15 minutes to Lucius Woods Park. They eat a snack and get some energy out on the playground before sitting down to science class.

Friday, Sept. 4, students in grades one, two and three sat on beach towels that were “eagle wings,” or an arm span, apart in the bandshell to learn about the formation of the universe. Up the hill from them, students in grades four, five and six discussed the planets. As the classes took place, a trio of deer ran through the park.

“Our Montessori program is really conducive to being outside anyway. It’s just a great time to rethink how we teach things,” said Beth Reedy, who teaches the older grades with Shannon Dickenson. “We’re just taking our normal instruction for the beginning of the year, which is all about how everybody is connected and earth is connected, and we’re just taking it outside.”

Ezra Ahlberg, a fifth grader in the Montessori program, holds on as he gets twisted on the tire swing at Lucius Woods Park in Solon Springs Friday, Sept. 4. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Ezra Ahlberg, a fifth grader in the Montessori program, holds on as he gets twisted on the tire swing at Lucius Woods Park in Solon Springs Friday, Sept. 4. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

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Students were excited to be back in the classroom after spending the spring taking virtual classes.

“I really like it, because we can actually talk to people and interact with other people instead of just sitting there by yourself,” said fifth grader Halle Johnson.

They weren’t the only ones excited for in-person instruction.

“It’s amazing. I’m so happy to see them again. The joy and smiles that it brings to their faces, as well as my heart, to be back face-to-face is truly amazing,” said Amanda Linden, who teaches grades one through three.

Reedy said some of her virtual students come to the park to attend the outdoor classes, a welcome change from just seeing them on a screen.

“The kids are doing an awesome job and it’s good to get them all back together,” she said. “I think we feel pretty safe out here.”

Shannon Dickenson shows her students from the Montessori program at Solon Springs School the difference between the size of Earth and the sun at Lucius Woods Park Friday, Sept. 4. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Shannon Dickenson shows her students from the Montessori program at Solon Springs School the difference between the size of Earth and the sun at Lucius Woods Park Friday, Sept. 4. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

The teachers expressed thanks to the Douglas County Forestry Department, which agreed to let them use the space. The Montessori classes also have permission to use Park Creek Pond and the bird sanctuary properties later in the month, although busing the students to the bird sanctuary poses a challenge.

The Forest, Parks and Recreation Committee approved the requests at its Aug. 31 meeting. The extra activity at the park won’t cost the county anything, according to Director of Forestry and Natural Resources Jon Harris. School staff clean and sanitize daily, do all the set up and take down, and pack out everything they pack in, including garbage. Property rentals at the site generally take place over the weekend, when they wouldn’t clash with classes.

The forestry department, which is headquartered in Solon Springs, connects with the school in many ways. Staff members visit the school for career day and other presentations, and students stock the pond every year.

“We have a pretty good relationship with the school. We weren’t surprised (by the request), and we thought it would be a good fit,” Harris said. “It’s a public space, and I like to see it utilized.”

The Solon Springs community has stepped up to welcome students back to school. In addition to the forestry department giving classes the OK to meet on county land, the owners of The Atrium offered their outdoor space, as well. The Solon Springs Educational Foundation provided school supplies and tote bags to every single student.

“That was great, it took stress off the families,” Linden said.

Montessori first grader, Evie Simenson, holds a bag that she and all students received from the Solon Springs Educational Foundation at Lucius Woods Park in Solon Springs Friday, Sept. 4. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)
Montessori first grader, Evie Simenson, holds a bag that she and all students received from the Solon Springs Educational Foundation at Lucius Woods Park in Solon Springs Friday, Sept. 4. (Jed Carlson / jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

Our Savior’s Lutheran Church supplied every student with a plastic bag containing hand sanitizer, a mask, wet wipes and Kleenex. And the school district purchased Eagles masks for all students and staff.

One thing classes are still in need of, Linden said, are picnic tables. The Montessori students eat lunch outside every day, and they’re exploring the idea of taking learning outdoors all school year. Last year, fifth grade teacher Amanda Guttormson took her class outside for instruction once a week for the entire day, even midwinter.

“So I know that it can be done,” Reedy said.

2 more weeks of camping

The Forestry, Parks and Recreation Committee on Aug. 31 also extended the camping season at Lucius Woods, Mooney Dam and Gordon Dam parks for two weeks this year. Camping at the three sites traditionally closes down the Monday after Labor Day. This year, it will run through Sept. 28.

The move capitalizes on a record-breaking summer.

“We are at or surpassed all-time revenue figures for all three campgrounds,” Harris said.

In previous years, the parks have filled up only during holiday weekends or very hot weather. This year, all three campgrounds have been full on multiple weekends.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in use of campgrounds, as well as our day use, just people coming into the park,” Harris said.

Use of boat landings and the recreational trail system have also skyrocketed this summer.

“That’s what people are doing: they’re staying home, they’re recreating locally and they’re looking to do something outside,” Harris said.

Visit the county website for more information on camping at the parks.