BERRIEN SPRINGS — It’s not something you see in a traditional public school: Kids building tree forts and playing with hatchets.
Students at Cottage Home Forest School in Berrien Springs do that most of their school day. The multi-grade forest school might be the first of its kind in the United States.
When we dropped by, court was in session.
“He invaded my personal space. that’s why we are in court today,” one of the students explained. She was speaking to another student who was pretending to be a judge.
The seven students are surrounded by trees and nature. A little pond, no longer frozen, is just feet away. They are sitting near a cold campfire circle holding their court session — with attorneys, and a judge — in the pretend world of Harmony Hollow. It is a world they created with their own imagination.
Ultimately, law and order prevails and the offender will serve his sentence.
“Ten minutes helping the person he offended. Two pieces of bark and three sticks. Court dismissed,” the “judge” says before the kids continue building their forts and collecting bark.
This world and the experiences of the students creating it, is part of the learning process for the students at this school.
The private Christian school is located on four acres in the woods near Berrien Springs. Melissa Morgan runs the school out of her home. She is a registered teacher in the state of the Michigan who has taught most of her life– including outside the U.S.
Morgan has modeled this school after the forest school movement in Europe. It largely draws on nature and the outdoors as part of the classroom and curriculum.
About half of the day is spent around Morgan’s kitchen table doing traditional school work.
“Math, reading, writing, we study all the core curriculum subjects,” explains Morgan. “But we study so much more than that because they have this added dimension of the natural world which we are also studying.”
The children ages 5 through 14-years-old spend the rest of the day after lunch, outside.
They garden, play games, learn about nature. They snowshoe and ice skate, learn about bugs, plants, mushrooms and trees. The possibilities are endless.
“Well we are just building our forts, just building life,” says Nicole. The outgoing 10-year-old couldn’t quite put her finger on what exactly she has learned outside.
“I’m not sure they are really conscious of what they are learning but they are learning all kinds of things. How to negotiate, how to work together, solve problems, order things,” says Morgan.
When Morgan first welcomed the students in September, she says she tried to facilitate games and activities in the forest. But quickly learned, she was more of a hindrance than a help. Now, she quietly observes and steps in when needed.
“We had a government but then Oma got mad at us so we had to quit it,” says Nicole.
“I thought it was leaning more toward tyranny and so I made them do more of a democracy,” Morgan explains with a laugh.
The children call Morgan, Oma. It means grandmother in German. Morgan says she wants her school to feel more home-like and less formal.
Morgan says the Christian perspective of nature is also taught in the woods.
“They are learning not to be afraid of nature. Nature is their friend,” says Morgan. “They are learning to appreciate the creator God that made all of nature.”
Morgan believes, there is no better way to teach that than to be surrounded by it.
There is a waiting list for next year. Morgan says the school will remain small with likely less than 12 students.