Natural Philosophy

Picture a classroom furnished with picnic tables and wooden benches. The floor is covered with wood chips, and the ceiling? It’s miles high. Some days it’s marbled and gray. Others it’s pure cerulean.

This outdoor classroom includes a garden; pens of chickens, ducks, turkeys, goats and sheep; several small cabins open to the elements; a fire circle; and a “loose parts” play area full of stuff like sticks and logs, tires and ropes. It all belongs to NatureYear, a school program at Common Ground—a “center for environmental learning and leadership” that “connects farm, forest and city,” as its website says. On average, about 23 different kids attend NatureYear each weekday–114 total, ages 5 to 13—for an educational experience they won’t get from the schooling they receive the other four days of the week. There’s no set curriculum and no testing. Instead, teachers instruct by the weather and the seasons, and kids plan half of every day themselves.

sponsored by

New Haven Symphony Orchestra presents Bartok: Concerto for Orchestra

Sometimes the day’s activities are simply based on “what needs to be done,” says Rebecca Holcombe, Common Ground’s director of children’s and community programs. For example, when a cold frame for growing spinach was needed, kids helped build it. That was the teacher’s plan for the day. The kids’ plans come from a daily meeting they hold. They might decide to lead a hike, teach other kids how to catch a frog, play a soccer game or just initiate some imaginative play, Holcombe says. Every day is different.

On a Thursday afternoon, three kids are in the garden thinning new spinach plants with teacher Tim Dutcher. Four more are with teacher Tricia Mangold Heiser, painting beehives built by Monday’s students. Some of the hives will stay at Common Ground, and others will be installed at schools and community gardens in greater New Haven, Holcombe says. “I love that we get to do real projects that are used here,” Heiser adds. “You can do little crafty things… but, hey, we’re painting these, they’re going to be down in the garden, there are going to be actual bees in them.” These are projects, she says, “that actually help the kids feel rooted.”

Several other students are wandering the grounds with teacher Dan DeCamillo, pulling a portable take on a camera obscura made from an old Radio Flyer wagon, a tarp, a lens, a mirror and lots of duct tape. They explain to me how they move the lens to focus the image inside their tarp-covered mobile darkroom. Then they photograph me photographing them.

“There’s time for play, there’s time for exploration, there’s time for real investigation in science,” Holcombe says. “The goal is to inspire kids to love nature first… Our next generation of environmental leaders is going to come from… kids who stomped in mud puddles and played in nature as kids.”

This is the end of NatureYear’s second season at Common Ground, which already houses a high school of the same name, a small working farm and popular after-school and summer programs for kids. The original idea of NatureYear, Holcombe says, was to offer the program for preschoolers and homeschooled kids. What happened instead surprised her: parents of children attending public school clamored for the opportunity. “Within the first, initial launch period we had a waiting list of like 50 kids,” she says.

There were obvious school attendance issues. A weekly full-day absence might not be feasible. But New Haven Public Schools has “been amazingly supportive of the program, and they view students as present at school when they’re present at NatureYear because they’re receiving instruction in an alternate learning environment,” Holcombe says. Other districts have agreed to count the weekly absences as excused, but some say the kids are truant. A few parents send their kids anyway. 80% of NatureYear’s students come from 15 public school districts as much as an hour away, while 20% of them are homeschooled. They work and play in mixed age groups, which Holcombe says typically creates less social conflict. Occasionally, they get to trade expertise with the Common Ground High School students.

Aside from attendance, the other big question parents have for Holcombe is about the weather: “Do you really go outside when it’s cold?” she quotes them. “The answer is, of course, yes. We really do.” In fact, NatureYear has no indoor space of its own. Teachers and students use the shared farmhouse kitchen when they want to cook, and on freezing cold winter days they might go inside for lunch. Kids have to “be willing to get outside and get dirty and push limits and try new things,” Holcombe says, but “it’s not a test of endurance. The goal is not to be miserable. The goal is to make sure that kids love being outside.”

Around 2:30, as the school day winds down, the NatureYear kids gather in a circle, something they do two or three times a day. “Kids are getting a lot of practice with to sit in a community and figure out when it’s your time to listen and when it’s your time to share and be respectful of each other and be respectful of the group,” Holcombe explains.

DeCamillo suggests they share their “roses and thorns”—the good and the bad—of the day. On a nearby picnic table, Dutcher is slicing the pesto flatbread his small group has just baked using chickweed, spinach and chives they harvested half an hour ago.

The season is turning, and there will be more food to pick and cook, more bees to house and more photographs to document the journey. But chances are, next week these kids will do something very different. Like the weather, or the harvest, or the lesson, no one knows quite what it will be.

Common Ground – 358 Springside Ave, New Haven (map)
Application deadline (2018-19): May 15, 2018
Information sessions: 11:30am-1pm on May 9, 10 & 11 (RSVP required)
(203) 389-4333…

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 1 and 8 taken with NatureYear’s camera obscura. Images 2-7 photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images 2 and 6 include teacher Tim Dutcher. Images 7 and 8 feature students photographing Kathy Leonard Czepiel and vice versa, respectively.

More Stories