SYNERGIA NATURE SCHOOL
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Modeled in part after the “Forest Kindergarten” concept made popular in Europe, Synergia Nature School is an outdoor classroom learning environment for children ages 6-10.
More than simply playing in nature (as important as that is), Synergia Nature School teachers use nature as a classroom to develop skills in reading, writing, math, science, Spanish, art, and music. Children are hardwired to want to learn, and these skills are deftly interwoven into engaging projects, adventures, and discovery – all within the context of a close learning community.
Children ages 6-10 learn best when their whole being is engaged – their bodies as well as their brains. They are particularly aligned with being in Nature – not in front of a screen. Learning in Nature happens as a natural unfolding, not as pressure and expectation, goals to “achieve”, or something to “get over with.” The learning is easily and necessarily adapted to each child’s unique learning style and pace.
Educating during a pandemic
Children this age need opportunities to develop social-emotional awareness. They are learning about relationships of all kinds, and how they “fit in” and belong. They need engaged adults to learn with, who are present with them, and can model healthy relationship.
How to do this during a pandemic?
The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all of our lives, in many ways. At this point in time, there is no in-classroom learning in western Nevada County, and children from kindergarten to 12th grade are relying on “distance learning” for their education.
Here at Synergia, we have taught experiential education since the late nineteen-eighties – over thirty years. The education has taken many forms, starting humbly with weekly “Nature Class” for homeschooled children ages 6-11, to co-creating a holistic education school where Shady Creek Outdoor Center is now, to running a boarding high school semester and Gap Year program for teens. So when we started to see the pandemic severely impact students and families, we realized that the experience and knowledge we have gained from decades of teaching out-of-class learning was needed now more than ever. This is not so much a “pivot” for us, as a call to action.
The action is to turn our attention to offering an educational option for local families who want something more for their children. As well prepared as we are, it is still a challenge to be together safely and responsibly in the time of a pandemic. We have the details worked out and are implementing county and state mandates for day camps, which most closely match our situation. This includes, but is not limited to:
- Small groups: To start, two cohorts of up to 7 children each: grades 1-2 and 3-4. One instructor per cohort. Cohorts will be on the Synergia property at the same time but will not mix.
- Outdoors: Outdoor spaces for learning. We will be outside most of the time. We will have outside shelters for inclement weather that will allow for campfires (once the fire danger is passed for the season) and still allow for safe distancing.
- Mask wearing where social distancing is not possible. Working closer than 6’, or on the occasion we are utilizing Synergia’s indoor facilities. It is our intention to use distance more than masks for the children. NOTE: As of September 16, the air quality in our area is hazardous due to wildfire. Since this is an outdoor school, the students and teachers may well need to mask up outside due to poor air quality, until it improves.
- Hygiene: Synergia Learning Center has three outdoor sinks with hot running water. We are learning outdoors, but we have the proper washing facilities easily available. Frequent and proper hand washing will be built naturally into the day and supervised in a relaxed manner. Teachers will have hand sanitizer with them at all times.
- Disinfecting: While we will be outdoors for the majority of the time, shared space such as toilet areas will be disinfected daily.
- Temperature checks: Upon arrival, students will wash hands and have their temperature checked.
- Individual belongings and storage boxes: Student’s personal items will be kept separate from one another in individual storage boxes. Students will be required to have their own metal or Nalgene type water bottle, insulated hot drink cup with spill-proof lid, two washable fabric face masks, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, water-proof pants and jacket, sturdy shoes and rubber boots. This list will likely be added to as needs arise.
- Illness: students and teachers who experience symptoms of illness will be told not to come to class, or will be sent home if symptoms develop during class time.
Synergia is mandated by the state and county to uphold Covid precautions for day camps, and we are committed to doing that, as an organization. In other words, we 100% agree that the precautions are essential to keep everyone safe, and we hold that ethic as an organization and as a learning community.
Family responsibility and practice as regards Covid-19: We are all only as safe as our neighbors. Therefore, for this program, in this time of pandemic, we can only accept children from families who also take Covid-safe precautions. While the last thing we want to do is intrude on your family life, we also have a responsibility to keep everyone as safe as possible. To that end, we ask that all families disclose their own approach to the pandemic. We will ask you to rate yourself in regard to your personal, non-school time practices. Those who choose minimal or no compliance will be asked to wait until the state and county regulations are lifted or eased before applying to Synergia Nature School.
We are also protective of children’s need to learn as unencumbered and free as possible. To us, this means that we will set up natural spaces with distance to minimize reminding to “keep more space”; the environment will create the space. When reminding is necessary, it will be done naturally, calmly, and patiently, so as to integrate this new way of being into our social lives with as little tension and as much adaptability as possible. Teachers will not complain about mask wearing, but will model adapting without complaint, even making it “fun” or a game. (We don’t have to love it, but we can accept it as part of the landscape. There are a hundred things in public school settings that are restrictive and regulated. Most people accept them as part of the environment and don’t think of them as repressive. For example, we will wear masks here when necessary, but a student won’t have to raise their hand for permission to use the bathroom.)
We strive to strike a balance between the two: keeping the community safe in this pandemic, and creating an environment that is flexible as well as secure, where a child can roam in nature, as free and unencumbered as possible, within safe boundaries: physical, emotional, intellectual, and social.
Learning happens all day, in a thousand different ways. Learning happens in Nature: in the garden, in the forest, in the group. Activities are designed with the following in mind:
- The developmental capacity of the child. More on this soon. Synergia teachers create learning environments that are developmental stage-appropriate. (Rather than age or “grade.”)
- Each child’s dominant learning capacities as described by Howard Gardner.
- Children’s innate sense of curiosity and wonder of the natural world.
- Each child’s individual manner or mode of learning best. We find the term “learning differences” problematic. “Different” than what? There is (should be) no standard. Each child is unique and whole as they are. Every child wants to learn.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein
Synergia Learning Center is located on 10 acres of mixed conifer forest at 3,000’ elevation. In addition to the natural features of forest and meadow, we have:
- Challenge Ropes Course on-site that is adapted for all ages. The Low Ropes Course activities generally involve close physical contact, but we are currently adapting some of the elements to allow for distancing. The High Ropes Course can more easily be adapted. Roped and harnessed tree climbs are also on campus.
- Synergia garden. The garden will be less active in Fall/Winter, but we will still grow and harvest produce, manage the compost pile (a great science lab in itself) and learn about soil, photosynthesis, insects, etc.
- Synergia’s rustic lodge/classroom may be used during times of inclement weather for one cohort at a time. Masks will be worn indoors. This building will be used only when necessary, as we want to be outside as much as possible.
- There is a full woodshop on campus, complete with a master woodworker. Most projects will take place outdoors, but the woodshop provides tools and parts for small woodworking projects.
- Cooperative Games and PLAY
Synergia is known for innovative cooperative games. Children learn best when play is involved, and games are a vital part of every day at Nature School.
- The (uncertain) Future
When Covid restrictions are no longer necessary, we can incorporate other Synergia activities into the curriculum: rock climbing, canoeing, swimming, overnight camping. Something to look forward to!
Schedule of Activities and Curriculum
Themed inquiry: Every month of will have a learning theme. October’s theme is “What is a Forest?” This is our entry point to learning and discovering the richness of our world.
Below is a draft of the basic daily schedule. It will undoubtedly need adjusting and refining, but we need to start somewhere. Having structure is important, so is allowing for flexibility within structure.
Note: A “scurry” is the scientific name for a group of squirrels. “Younger Scurry” translates to younger cohort (Grades 1-2); “Older Scurry” is older cohort (Grades 2-4).
From teacher Sara:
“The first week at Synergia will be about exploring the grounds and introducing ourselves to each other and the forest. To get to know the forest we will have a scavenger hunt of colors, make “sniffing tea” (tea you smell, but don’t drink), count how many sounds we can hear in different places, and identify objects only with our sense of touch. To explore our sense of taste, we will head to the garden and see if (only after asking) there is anything we can test with our taste buds. Once we have practiced using all five senses, we will receive our field guides, which will help us, in the weeks to come, unlock many more details of the forest.
Introductions also mean settling in and establishing a sense of place, and belonging. We will make a map of the grounds, pick our thinking trees (where we might go from time to time to work on projects), and explore our solo spots (a bit further apart to give students moments of more quiet reflection and an opportunity to explore a small, consistent spot to see how it changes over the course of the semester).
The first week will also focus on setting routine. That means we will jump right into reading some fun stories, and we will pick the first character to write our first week’s story. We will also set our safe routines in regards to Covid-19. To do this, we will make rulers, and play games letting us practice standing six feet apart (i.e., everybody try and stand 6 feet from a pinecone) and putting on our superhero masks if we need to go inside. The emphasis will be on making these safety measures joyful and fun.
Other projects for the first week include writing a hand-washing song that is 30 seconds long, decorating our journals, and practicing our animal call and responses. Can’t wait to meet you and your kiddos.”
There are three Synergia teachers for this first semester. Each cohort will have a main teacher with the third taking some blocks on a regular, rotating basis.
Sara loves frogs, bikes, and exploring. She divides her time between seasonal wildlife biology fieldwork, outdoor education, adventures, and writing. She substitute taught at Grizzly Hill School in Fall 2018. She created beyondabook.org to connect students to her trips, which include walking from Mexico to Canada, canoeing the Missouri River, and biking over 10,000 miles on the route of the monarch butterfly migration. Her first book, about her trip with the monarchs, is due out in April, and she is currently working on a version for younger readers.
Teaching in an outdoor setting has been a longtime goal for Melanya, as much of her life has been leading up to this next chapter. She has over 10 years experience working with children — from her time as a counselor at Camp Augusta, and working at Synergia back in 2005, to her most recent work as a farm educator with Sierra Harvest, and as a mother raising her own two young boys with her husband, Alex. Melanya worked as a midwife in Grass Valley and surrounding region for 8 years and loved connecting with families and sharing knowledge that empowered new or seasoned parents. She looks forward to teaching your children and meeting you. She loves many arts and crafts including needle felting, collaging and knitting. And if you see her at pick up or drop off ask her about hoshigoki persimmons or fire cider powder if you get the chance.
Alex Nopola is a senior staff at Synergia having worked here for 14 years. Alex is father of two beautiful, rambunctious young boys and spends much of his time showing them the wonders of the outdoors (with his wife, Melanya). He was the games teacher at Yuba River Charter School until Covid interfered. He will lead the Ropes Course and Tree Climbing curriculum as well as building projects and hands-on learning. He is a certified Wilderness First Responder through NOLS Wilderness Medicine and has trained with the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) as a rock-climbing instructor.
Debra and Tom Weistar
Debra and Tom work behind the scenes as Synergia’s Directors, keeping the organization humming along, hiring and supporting staff, designing programs and curriculum, interfacing with schools up and down the state and beyond. They founded Synergia in 2002 after they left the non-profit they had worked with for 15 years prior. For the Nature School, Debra will head up staff and parent support. Tom will design outdoor spaces and help with woodshop projects.
Philosophy and Core Values
This is a nuanced, in-depth topic and this section will be added to as the school develops over time, but there are some basic tenets to start, to help families decide if this is the best place for their children.
“Education” comes from the root word, “educere” which means, “to draw forth”. At Synergia we acknowledge that children are whole and complete as they are. Part of that wholeness is curiosity about their world, and a thirst to learn. Nature School provides a richness of learning opportunities and present, loving guidance to “draw forth” the child’s innate intelligence. In our world at present, this is a very hard concept for most people to grasp. Parents are concerned that their children learn basic skills and are “successful” in school. Learning in the way that we practice and advocate is a different paradigm – not new, but not what most find in the public school system today, or in most private schools. It requires a shift in what we think learning is, and a deep inquiry into what education is for.
Every Synergia program has its basis in an understanding and practice of human development. We study and observe how children grow and learn, and then design learning environments for those stages. Teaching is therefore more about entering into relationship together and providing the necessary tools and guidance for the child to develop their own capacities to engage the world.
A few words on what we don’t do.
No rewards or punishments
Rewards and punishments teach one thing: how to get a reward/how to avoid punishment. They do not teach a child about justice, or to make a hard decision on their own, or how to be fair. Rewards and punishments are designed to control and manipulate behavior, not to develop intrinsic capacities for goodness.
And what about “consequences”? There are “natural consequences”. If you are late and miss your ride, then you also miss the activity you were heading to. That is a natural and direct consequence of your actions, and possibly of your choices. But if a teacher or parent imposes a “consequence” as in, “You missed your ride and now you have to rake up all the leaves”, that is an unrelated punishment handed down by an authority figure who has more power than you do. There may be accountability to be discussed or even an amends made, but that would be mutually created by adult and child for a contextual purpose – not handed down to “teach a lesson.”
Rewards and punishments condition children to obey authority. They imply that the child cannot be trusted. The child learns to not trust themself.
Rewarding achievements or good behavior is the flip side of punishing. An authority figure judges another’s performance. The focus becomes the performance, object or approval, rather than the intrinsic learning.
Gifts of appreciation, genuine admiration, recognition of efforts and accomplishments, and gratitude are not “rewards.” Letter grades or objects like gold stars or candy are, when they are given from a place of an authority’s approval and judgment.
Synergia staff are trained in the art of listening, and of fairness and justice. We do not use methodology to resolve conflict. Using a “method” implies that we don’t trust one another to resolve the conflict without a “script.” Conflict resolution requires time, openness, humility, fairness, trust, caring, and an absence of tension. Having a developmental understanding is also key. An adult that has no “agenda” or bias, who listens openly with fairness and equity to everyone, and who can help children articulate and understand their feelings creates an atmosphere of safety where conflict is not something to be feared or avoided, but seen as a part of relationship that can be addressed, and resolved. Children guided in such a way learn to resolve conflict on their own, empowered to navigate the bumps in relationship with kindness, fairness, honesty, and love.