New website designed to get students, teachers into woods

By Pamela Doan

Students at the Garrison School have a 185-acre forest at their disposal, a resource gifted to the district in 1956 by the Osborn, Gunther and Sloan families for environmental education.

But other than an annual School Forest Day, to be held this year on Friday, May 6, students and teachers didn’t use it frequently in lesson plans or recreation. Last fall, the board of education asked the school’s new principal, John Griffiths, to see if there were ways to encourage more visits.

“I found there were a lot of things holding teachers back,” Griffiths says. “We went out of our way to remove logistics.”

Second-grade students in the Garrison School Forest this past fall (photo by Jill Corson Lake) 
Second-grade students in the Garrison School Forest this past fall (photo by Jill Corson Lake)

To that end, the school launched Forest Fridays, a nine-week pilot program. Administrators arranged for a bus to transport classes to the forest;  teachers could sign up to take their students. It was so effective that Forest Fridays resumed on April 1 and will continue until the end of the school year.

Griffiths also wanted teachers to realize they didn’t need a grand plan to get students into the forest. “There is value to just being in nature. I want them to see the school forest as a lab, to try small ideas,” he said. Whether it was a hike or spending time enjoying a view, Griffiths wanted to support teachers in experimenting to see how the students reacted and what impact it had.

“I’m a big fan of unstructured time in nature,” he said. “It’s vital for human development and a lot of studies say that just getting kids out in nature helps them be more productive and able to engage in learning.”

Two Garrison students in the school forest with Superintendent Laura Mitchell (photo by Jill Corson Lake) 
Two Garrison students in the school forest with Superintendent Laura Mitchell (photo by Jill Corson Lake)

Griffiths said the district hasn’t incurred any extra cost running Forest Fridays. Teachers have been able to sign up but it has not been a mandate. After the fall term, teachers requested more resources to create curriculum, bathroom facilities (portable toilets are brought in for the annual School Forest Day) and storage for materials in the forest.

The request for more curriculum resources struck a chord with Jill Corson Lake, who has two children at the school and serves on its Environmental Education Committee. She created a website at gufsee.org with lesson plans and many other resources. It’s a comprehensive tool for anyone who wants to hike in the forest (which is open to the public; a trail map can be downloaded at gufs.org under “Our District”), get involved or learn about environmental education.

Gorgeous photography makes the site easy on the eyes, too. Corson Lake’s photos of the Hudson Valley and forest make the design and function aesthetically pleasing. She created it as a thesis project for her Master of Arts degree in Critical and Creative Thinking at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Jill Corson Lake (photo provided)
Jill Corson Lake (photo provided)

“Jill’s efforts to consolidate resources and help that process has been invaluable,” said Griffiths. “[It helps to have] best practices, resources for introduction for students, and to professionally launch a brainstorm of ideas of what could be done.” Corson Lake developed the site with input from the administration, teachers and the environmental education committee. “I wanted it to be both useful and well used,” she said.

Corson Lake says the site remains a work in progress. A new vegetable garden at the school will be added on April 21 and 22; she hopes students and teachers will update the Forest Fridays blog, and she’d also like to see the forest being used for research with information that could be shared through the site. The site also has the potential to be used as a community board for educators.

A map of the Garrison School Forest property.
A map of the Garrison School Forest property.

Corson Lake’s interest in environmental education stems from her connection to the Hudson Valley. “It’s really important for all children to learn outdoors and be in nature and to learn about this place where we live; to find out about geology, the Hudson River ecosystem, the history of our area, Pete Seeger’s legacy,” she said. “Because we have a school forest, I think we can make public education here special and unique.”

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Doan, who resides in Philipstown, has been writing for The Current since 2013. She edits the weekly calendar and writes the gardening column. Location: Philipstown. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Gardening, environment