YELLOW SPRINGS, Ohio (AP) — Oskar Dennis sees the tiny green plant on the forest floor and abruptly stops, sliding a bit in the mud.
"T . Ta . Taaaaa .," he struggles to recall the plant's name as he uses his skinny walking stick to point at it. "What's it called again? I know this, I know this."
"Oh that's right: Toad Trillium!" the 6-year-old squeals as he picks up his pace to catch up with the rest of his kindergarten classmates as they hike the Glen Helen Nature Preserve.
Oskar and his seven classmates, decked out in galoshes, rain jackets and backpacks slung over narrow shoulders, are hiking the preserve just like they do every Monday. They chatter among themselves, tell "spooky stories" inside the crevice of a stone cave on a break before scurrying up a rock wall to head back to their classroom: A log, a tarp tied off between trees and a fire pit.
This is Forest Kindergarten, where the glow of green illuminating these children's faces is from moss and ferns not from cellphone screens and computers. In its first year, the outdoor classroom is part of the nonprofit, alternative The Antioch School, where all the K-6 children lead their learning and discover working together is often smarter than working alone. Here, making a mistake is heralded as a chance to learn and not as the impetus to get sent to the principal's office. In fact, there is no principal here. The United States' oldest Democratic school, about an hour north of Cincinnati, is governed by a board, employs five teachers and a school manager and receives no state funding.
And hold on to your No. 2 pencils: There are no grades, no tests and no homework. There's no stressed-out, hover parents wondering if their kindergartner is reading or writing or wondering if their primary-school kids need tutors.
There is just learning for the sake of knowledge. Exploration for the sake of wonderment. Discovery.
In an era of teaching to the test, graduation requirements and school funding tied to teacher performance and kids who are seemingly-always plugged-in and too-often zoned-out, here's a handful of six-year-olds learning big life lessons in little ways.
If you stay long enough, you realize it's what you don't hear that speaks the loudest. There is no bickering. There's no whining. There is rarely a student who asks for help. Instead, if you shut up and listen these kids will eagerly tell you what they know. You'll discover just how much they know.
And it's delightful— even in a Monday downpour.
That is precisely the point, says teacher Lindie Keaton. It was Keaton's idea to bring Forest Kindergarten here after she studied the approach. This is her 10th year of teaching kindergarten at The Antioch School. She previously taught in public schools.
"I love the outdoors and I wanted to do this for a long time. This type of education— the Democratic process —is fostering a love of learning, is fostering faith and trust in themselves," she says as her entire class squeezes into the cave and holds a flashlight up to walls and one student begins to tell a story.
"Play is really, really important in the learning process," she adds.
Keaton is quick to add that, while the students set rules and lead their learning, she does set perimeters when it comes to safety: "That is not negotiable." A nine-page document outlines her learning objectives and goals for her class. She uses it as a guide, not a checklist.
"My primary goal for the social and emotional development of each individual child is for him/her to see himself/herself as an independent, strong, capable individual, learner and teacher," she wrote in that document.
The play-as-learning concept is far from new and science backs up its need. Learning outside the cinder block walls is already baked into The Antioch School, so Forest Kindergarten wasn't much of a stretch. All Antioch School students go outside daily, often repeatedly on their free-time breaks.
The kindergartners are extraordinarily self-reliant. Keaton trusts them to develop a "plan" for nearly everything they do. Then she expects them to follow though. And they do. A plan can be as routine as leaving the forest to go to the bathroom alone and come back. Yes, they go places by themselves. A plan may also involve resolving conflicts with other students. Those generally take meetings and the students lead these conversations.
Liz Griffin, the school's development director, acknowledges she was a bit worried about how her children would acclimate to traditional schools upon graduation.
Her eighth-grade son is a straight-A student. Her daughter is in her last year at Antioch. She said she doesn't remind her son about his homework and believe it or not, she says, he doesn't argue with his sister.
"I know it sounds incredible, but my kids never, ever fight," she says, adding that her son was taken aback by the lack of respect shown to teachers." This school has made me a better parent."
Oskar's mom, Sally Dennis, like many parents is super involved in the school. She will teach the older group next year, when 28-year teacher Chris Powell retires.
Dennis beams when told a series of stories her son told a stranger out on the trail.
They went a little something like this:
"My family and I are vegetarians. We do it because it hurts animals ... The cavemen did it because they needed the meat then. But we don't anymore. Are you a vegetarian? Why not? Don't you think it hurts animals?"
Saved by a classmate with an urgent math problem.
"Yeah, 40 plus 40 is 80," Oskar tells his buddy, Alec Reeves, also 6.
"OK then what is 50 plus 50?" Reeves asks.
They ponder it together.
Then somewhere along the hike or back in the outdoor classroom, Oskar finds a stick and shoves it into his backpack.
"This one's perfect," he says. "I'm going to whittle it into a magic wand."
Then this wee storyteller grows quiet. The wheels are turning. You can almost see the mental work happening.
But Oskar, no wand is necessary.
Magic happens here daily.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com