Woodson Branch School offers a nature-based education to youths

BABES IN THE WOODS: Students at Woodson Branch Nature School spend hours outdoors every day, engaging in group activities along with unstructured play. Director Deborah DeLisle says the school’s approach to learning results in engaged and creative kids. Photo by Joe Pellegrino

Woodson Branch Nature School operates a preschool for 3- to 5-year-olds in Hot Springs and a K-8 school in Marshall. But what makes a nature-based school different from a traditional school?

“We spend a lot of time outside,” explains Deborah DeLisle, who serves as director of the preschool, principal of the K-8 School and chair of the board for the nonprofit. “At our preschool, we have a yard with gardens, a willow tunnel and a treehouse — things that really engage kids in nature,” she says. “Our K-8 is a farm, art and forest school. These elements stream through the whole curriculum. There isn’t anything else like it in the country that I know of.”

While the school has some indoor classrooms, many lessons require students to learn outside. Additionally, kids have at least  1 1/2 hours of unstructured forest time each day. This time outdoors is similar to recess, but at Woodson Branch the kids spend their time trampling through creeks, building forts beside towering rhododendron and digging in the dirt.

Every student at Woodson Branch School an individual garden plot, and the school has a goal of growing 80 percent of its own produce. Students maintain the blueberry orchard, apple and pear trees, and muscadine grapes, and they harvest elderberries and reishi mushrooms from the woods to make into medicinal tinctures. DeLisle says all that time spent outdoors interacting with nature adds up to kids that are more engaged and creative than their counterparts who are stuck inside all day. “It’s quantifiable at this point,” adds DeLisle. “Just like that bumper sticker says, ‘Kids grow better outside.’”

Editor’s note: As part of our monthlong celebration of sustainable ways of living and working in our local community, Xpress is highlighting some of those who are taking action on a variety of creative and inspiring initiatives.

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About Kim Dinan
Kim Dinan is a freelance writer and author of The Yellow Envelope. She lives in WNC with her husband and daughter. Follow me @kimdinan

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