Into the woods

Learning among the trees at a small school in Callicoon

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 9/15/21

CALLICOON, NY — “There are no wrong ideas,” said Caitlyn Pezza. “Trust yourself.” And at her school in the woods, she wants children to know: it is safe to share those …

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Into the woods

Learning among the trees at a small school in Callicoon

Posted

CALLICOON, NY — “There are no wrong ideas,” said Caitlyn Pezza. “Trust yourself.” And at her school in the woods, she wants children to know: it is safe to share those ideas.

The forest is peaceful and quiet on Hospital Road in Callicoon. You can’t hear the bustle from the Labor Day weekend crowd in town. Here in the silence, Pezza has created an outdoor school for kids aged two to nine.

It’s perfect for the age of COVID-19, of course, but to Pezza and others, nature-based learning means much more.

Forest schools aren’t new. They began in Scandinavia as part of the open-air culture that has taken root there. The learning process “helps and facilitates more than knowledge-gathering, it helps learners develop socially, emotionally, spiritually, physically and intellectually, according to the Forest Schools Association. “It creates a safe, non-judgmental nurturing environment for learners to try stuff out and take risks. Forest School inspires a deep and meaningful connection to the world and an understanding of how a learner fits within it.”

Pezza trained with the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools, and has an extensive background in working with kids of all ages, both as a teacher of creative writing and in administration, as a department head and assistant principal, she said.

“I worked with middle and high school students in Manhattan, students for whom the system wasn’t working.” She still coaches kids with ADHD, using nature to help them relax and then learn to focus.

The Wizard School meets outdoors in almost all weather, “even if it’s raining, even if it’s snowing. If it gets too cold or a massive storm front comes in, we’ll go inside.” But fundamentally, “it’s about being immersed in nature, in all seasons,” she said.

A bridge to learning at the Wizard School.
A bridge to learning at the Wizard School.
A student-made artwork at the Wizard School in Callicoon.
A student-made artwork at the Wizard School in Callicoon.
The forest floor has much to teach, according to Forest School philosophy.
The forest floor has much to teach, according to Forest School philosophy.

Why call it the Wizard School? No, it’s not about Harry Potter, it’s about how we’re embedded in myth, she said. “It’s about attunement to wonder. Magic is happening all around us.”

They’ll start in the morning with nature art, a feather, something to focus the children on the outdoors. “Then we circle up for 20 minutes and sing a ‘good morning’ song.” The point is to “acknowledge the elements around us. We’re not separated from nature, we’re a part of it.”

Connection has many aspects. There’s the historical, where they talk about the debt to the Lenape Indigenous tribe, and what the ancient people have to teach us now. There’s the mythic, steeped in creation stories—how did the world come to be? How do other cultures talk about it? There are stories from all over, Pezza said.

“The children can think about questions. Little ones don’t know the answers yet, so there’s the element of wonder.”

Why are we here? What can we do while we’re here?

“I’ll look at things and challenge.” Challenge them to think, and to see the world anew.  “I want to awaken their sense of wonder.”

She sees herself as a guide. Learning at this age is less about stuffing in facts, and more about learning to learn, learning to ask questions, about creating a framework for the answers to reside in and be remembered. It’s about experience. The goal “is to create a love for learning.”

It’s also about being active. In the forest, there are fallen trees to walk on, trails to follow, forts to build. Pezza supervises, and the class size is small—eight students at the most—so she can keep an eye on everyone. There are healthy risks to take, she said. “We keep them safe, but don’t want to teach them fear. Healthy risk-taking builds confidence.”

(She’s mindful of Lyme disease and other concerns; regular tick checks and COVID precautions are part of the day.)

Nature-based schools and workshops have been around for a while, but they tend to be for children who are already having problems, Pezza said. She wants to start early. “How can you make wilderness part of them, not something to rehabilitate them?”

Class size matters too. “The program is small and it’s going to remain small, eight students at the most,” she said. At this point, it’s only being held three days a week, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

She’s already hearing from parents around the region. But Pezza’s goal isn’t to have a huge program. Forest schools are like seeds: plant them here and there, tend them carefully. Then watch them grow.

She talks about nurturing children’s ideas, but the thought can apply to parents looking for something more, too. “We channel their ideas when we’re in a safe space,” she said. “The power of that, and of mind, that manifests.”

Creation will happen. “Imagination is powerful.” As is “wisdom and process. It’s magic...

“Nature is the portal opening everyone [to] their imaginations,” Pezza said. “Connecting with their own wisdom and with the confidence to come up with their own ideas.”

For information about the Wizard School, see its website at wizardschool.net.

Time spent in the forest is never wasted. Students in forest schools like the Wizard School absorb a great deal of learning while exploring outside.
Time spent in the forest is never wasted. Students in forest schools like the Wizard School absorb a great deal of learning while exploring outside.

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