Nature-based school on Whidbey adapts to social distancing

During times of social distancing and school closures, a primarily outdoor school has had to shift some of its interaction online for students, a first for the nature-based schooling program.

Calyx Community Arts School, located in the South Whidbey State Park, currently has 16 students between the ages of five and 12 and three instructors, embodying the idea of a one-room school house.

The kids took care of the park, monitoring and recording changes in their surroundings. Screen time, unless it was a microscope screen, was not allowed.

Since the students and instructors stopped meeting March 12, another way had to be found to connect. As a result, an online outdoor school program was launched.

Calyx Director Lisa Kois acknowledged with a laugh that the term “online outdoor school” does sound like an oxymoron. But by communicating regularly over Zoom, a video conferencing website, the kids have been able to see each other during a time of fear and anxiety.

“I think what we’re finding is that just by using a minimal and very intentional use of online time that it is supporting a really beautiful kind of connected learning, which is what we do in person,” Kois said.

Similar to the school’s normal operations, pre-COVID, a morning circle is hosted over webcam where the kids participate in a meditation and share their feelings. The latter has played an important role in Calyx’s mission of emotional learning, Kois said.

The benefit of living on Whidbey Island, she added, is that most kids can experience nature in their own backyards.

Towards the end of the morning circle, daily prompts are provided to the kids that require them to go outside and do some of the same coursework they did while at South Whidbey State Park.

“A lot of their work is in their yards in a special place exploring, doing science, doing literacy,” Kois explained.

Zayne Roos has been doing a lot of her schoolwork from a cedar tree in her yard. Although the 8-year-old would prefer to see her friends in person, she has accepted this new way of learning and interacting with others over Zoom.

“It’s definitely different from going to school and starting out on the trail, but it’s also really nice to see my friends,” Zayne said.

Her mother, Alix, said the transition to social distancing was an abrupt one, being that they weren’t seeing any friends and her daughter is an only child.

The use of technology has helped Zayne connect and get through lonely times.

“It’s kind of amazing that they were able to continue to offer what they offer at Calyx in this format,” Alix said.

For Maisie Greer’s 6-year-old son Rhyze, the routine of continuing the same coursework and communicating with classmates, even while at home, has helped him feel connected.

“I love the flexibility of the program and the mentors’ willingness to work with the kids where they’re at,” Greer said.

Other Calyx courses, such as cooking and art, are also taught over Zoom.

Kois said it has been inspiring to see the quality of work that has emerged while students are learning from their homes and working independently. She has been surprised to see some of the students are hidden poets.

She added that Calyx is open to supporting other schools, and that she personally has been working with South Whidbey Elementary School teachers to share what she has learned from Calyx’s online experience so far.