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First Grade Feature: Forest Fridays

Every Friday, rain or shine, the first graders load up their day packs with lunch, water bottles, hats, sunscreen, their journals and a pencil, and they trek down the hill into the Presidio National Park, through Julius Kahn playground, and down into the El Polin Springs watershed.

They chatter happily about the oxalis (sour grass) growing at the edge of the path and maybe even stop to pick a piece for a snack. An Anna’s hummingbird flits overhead, and six curious young naturalists turn and point.

The walk ends at The Willow Dome, our hallowed outdoor classroom, in the heart of El Polin Springs. Less than 10 years ago this area of the Presidio was covered in non-native grass and picnic tables, but after extensive restoration efforts, it is now filled with the native flora and fauna that once thrived here.

The day officially begins in the East of the natural cycle with Inspiration. Depending on the week, the inspiration may come from a story, a song, a demonstration of a skill, or a powerful question.

Next is the Southeast: Activate. The activation usually takes the form of a game related to today’s focus lesson. When we study animal tracking, we might play Blindfolded Drum Stalk. When we study bird language, the game might be Guard the Nest. Regardless of the game’s particular content, the objective remains the same: activate the senses and open the mind.

The South comes next, and with it is Focus. This is “the lesson” portion of the day, and the goal is to engage all the senses through guided discovery. It might look like a demonstration of leaf and bark rubbings followed by ample time to try out the technique. Or it might entail using a “track pack” to search high and low, near and far for footprints, scat, or scratch marks indicating a wild critter has recently passed through.

After this lengthy time of intense focus, the Southwest: Take a Break is a welcome respite for the budding scientists. A period of free exploration in the forest is typical, and the students can be seen doing everything from sketching flowers to following the trickle of the stream to building forts. Later they return to the Willow Dome for Sit Spot, a time of quiet reflection in the forest. At the beginning of the year the students sit in silent mindfulness for a mere 30 seconds, and by April they maintain a meditative state for close to 10 minutes. They have learned that the more still and quiet they are, the more likely it is that a tiny gopher may pop its head out of its underground lair to see if the coast is clear.

Following Sit Spot the children return to a circle once again for the West: Gather and Share. Our Story of the Day routine gives each member of the community an opportunity to share with the group whatever is top of mind for them. It may be a single word like “sunny,” or it may be a statement of gratitude such as, “I appreciate my friend for jumping in the big puddle with me.” It is with both reluctance and contentment that the class bids the forest farewell and begins the hike back to school. The conversations have shifted from “What are you doing this weekend?” to “Did you see that White-Crowned Sparrow? I think I heard a companion call!” Though we are all tired, it is a happy, fulfilled kind of tired.

The final and perhaps most important part of our day, and of the natural cycle, takes place in the Northwest: Reflect. Once we are all safely installed back in the comfort of our classroom, the students spend time journaling about their day in the forest. A few at a time, they add their contributions to the class Floor Book, a large-scale scrapbook that houses our memories and captures our knowledge. Each week we add a new page to the Floor Book, and by the end of the year it is a coveted item during silent reading time as the students look back with fondness on Forest Fridays of days past. We end with one final circle, where we attempt to sum up our day with a few sentences. And then begins the long seven-day wait until the next Forest Friday…