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Nature Becomes the Classroom in South Canton's Outdoor Education Program

The smell of fresh air, the crunch of powdery snow, and the feeling of a light drizzle on a rainy day are all things you’d typically find outside the classroom. For scholars at South Canton Scholars, those elements have become one.
The South Canton Outdoor Education Program wrapped up its first year of operation at the school and found incredible success with students and teachers alike.
Dana Gurganus, South Canton’s principal, saw students at fifth grade camp soaking in the environment and engaging with lessons being taught. She was inspired to replicate the level of learning and student engagement she saw at the camp.
 Dana Gurganus in the snow with her students.
Scholars enjoyed going outdoors as a part of the program, which set a goal for each class to be outside for 15 minutes every day.
After giving it some thought, Gurganus realized the only thing South Canton was missing was a high ropes course. The rest of the camp activities could have been replicated at the school, which outperforms surrounding schools.
“We have some really great property connecting to our school that has trails and access to water,” she said. “There's a river that runs through there. There's a small pond area, so much of the stuff that happens at camp can actually happen right here at school.”
Katie Ruwe, South Canton’s 3-5 dean, was tasked with implementing Gurganus’ vision. She started with a small goal of getting classes to be outside for at least 15 minutes every day. Scholars coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic had been used to more screen time and the goal was for them to have more time in the Great Outdoors.
 Students petting a duckling.
Laura Hurn’s first-graders helped grow baby ducks from an egg into a duckling before sending them out into the wild.
Teachers were provided with resources for the initiative and spoke to outdoor education teachers as consultants.
While the scholars didn’t get to swim in the Lower River Rouge, which sneaks into the back of school property, they did get to find real life examples of lessons from the classroom, such as finding obtuse angles in nature, and seeing life begin, with one class hatching ducks.
First Grade Teacher Laura Hurn’s class hatched and raised ducks from the egg stage all the way until they were ready for life on their own in the wild. Scholars from the entire school paraded through Hurn’s class to get a glimpse of the project in action.
 Students planting a garden.
Students at South Canton Scholars tended to gardens as a part of the Outdoor Education program that completed its first year and is set for many more.
Nature even mimicked the project, as a mother duck laid eggs by the exit for dismissal while Hurn’s incubation was happening.
“So we were able to watch a legitimate mom sit on her nest every day for over 20 days,” Gurganus said. “It took forever for those little babies to hatch. They watched this mama duck protect her eggs and then eventually the nine little eggs hatched, and Mama Duck took them away. So we got to see it happen in real life and also in the school, which was neat.”
While scholars couldn’t hatch ducks year-round, each month of the year had a different theme within the program. These themes were topical to what was happening in nature and were communicated to families.
 Students doing classwork outside.
South Canton’s Outdoor Education program included activities like taking books and assignments outdoors.
Leaves changing colors, animal hibernation, and recycling and composting were all separate themes and resources were provided for each based on grade level.
Scholars were able to witness hibernation processes in real time and spotted tracks in the snow from the animals they were learning about in class. They also had virtual lessons in winter months, learning about different animals and how they adapted to weather and their new-look habitats.
The program didn’t stop when scholars moved to special classes, either. Scholars participated in a mini 5K race, replacing a traditional wellness day inside the gym. In STEM class, scholars launched pumpkins in catapults and were tasked with meeting a distance goal, which required calculation.
 Students playing in the leaves.
Students at South Canton Scholars took advantage of the school’s wide-ranging property that includes wooded areas, ponds, and a section of a river.
Teachers were encouraged to weave the Outdoor Education Program with Moral Focus virtues. Ruwe said respect was a key virtue, especially as it related to cleaning up the Earth and respecting nature.
Gurganus and Ruwe said they have a long-term vision for the program and will re-evaluate with teachers this summer to set expectations for the coming years.
“This has soaked into classroom culture,” Ruwe said. “Our teachers that we see take their kids out on a regular basis have phenomenal class cultures. They have made a connection with their kids on a different level because, while we focus on academics with our kids, we understand that maybe not all kids excel in every area of academics.
“But, can you engage in this activity and find success? And because you find success, you make a connection with your teacher. There's respect for yourself and your peers. So, being able to see how that has impacted class culture has been really cool.”
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About South Canton Scholars
South Canton Scholars is a tuition-free, public charter school in Canton, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. It is part of the National Heritage Academies network, which includes more than 100 tuition-free, public charter schools serving more than 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade across nine states. For more information, visit

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