ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) is a standards-based nature-immersion program in which Northbranch Nature Center’s professional nature educators partner with Moretown Elementary PreK through 2nd grade teachers and students for several hours on a weekly basis. In outdoor classrooms, desks are replaced by stumps and logs; students focus on the campfire instead of the blackboard; pens and computers are traded for tools such as saws, shovels, and sticks. Not only does this forest-based learning help students meet Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, but ECO’s equally important goal is to help children and their schools develop a lasting relationship with the natural world, fostering a sense of place and stewardship in our local Vermont community.
Beyond ECO’s ability to teach official curriculum, the social and emotional benefits of ECO are undeniable. Preschoolers run down the hill back to school, rosy cheeked and covered in mud on a bitter November day yelling, "we're brave preschoolers!" After the flooding from Hurricane Irene, teachers noted how the students processed their emotions and fears in the forest far more easily than in the classroom, building whole villages complete with fully functioning sewer systems. These experiences become our children’s narrative about themselves – as brave people who work together and can indeed solve seemingly insurmountable world problems.
According to their teachers, our children’s time in the forest each week sparks in them joy and happiness, deepens their social connections, builds confidence and teamwork, enhances problem solving skills, promotes creativity and offers them a place to process emotions through work and play. Current economic research shows that a child’s development of these “soft skills” is essential to his or her long-term happiness and success as an adult. Similarly, Neuroscientists are discovering that teaching kindness and teamwork skills strengthens the very pathways in a child’s brain that are used in reading and math. In these ways, our ECO program is a vital and cutting-edge compliment to our children's indoor education.