Wisconsin Teacher Brings Forest Classroom to Public School

Forest classrooms are more common in Europe, but lately there have been several popping up around the United States. Generally speaking though, these have been preschools run by nature centers or private schools.

Yet one teacher did his research and proposed a forest kindergarten to his public school board…and was given the green light to start one. As far as we know, this is the first one we have heard of that has been created at the kindergarten level and in a public school setting and this is really exciting news. Hopefully, this means that the idea of forest classrooms is gaining ground in the education world in the U.S. Maybe we’ll even see the concept at the upper elementary or middle school level someday?

It’s something to hope for at any rate. Well done Mr. Dargatz, and we hope that your passion and the model class you’ve created will serve as a role model to others hoping to do the same. 🙂


Woodside Elementary teacher shows students what the outdoors can teach them

A Woodside Elementary School teacher is using his love of the outdoors to teach students with a unique education style.

Peter Dargatz is in his third year teaching nature kindergarten to students. They spend time every day outdoors learning about various things such as types of animals and the seasons. It is an adaptation of what’s called nature kindergarten, a curriculum popular on the east and west coasts of the United States and in Europe.

The definition of nature kindergarten came about due to misconceptions surrounding it and other similar programs called forest kindergarten and forest preschool.

“Forest kindergarten is technically pre-kindergarten age, 3- and 4-year-olds that are outside essentially all day. Nature kindergarten is actual kindergarten age, 5 turning 6, and it doesn’t have to be outside from the beginning to the end,” Dargatz explained.

The idea to implement a similar type of program in his classroom stemmed from what he observed in one of his kindergarten students.

Inspiration for the program

Two years ago, he noticed that one of his students was excelling academically. But when he shifted his classroom activities back to a traditional kindergarten setting for the last week of school, he noticed something wasn’t right.

“I noticed that she could not problem solve when she was with a peer. I noticed that her fine motor skills were lacking. I noticed that she didn’t know how to initiate play,” Dargatz said. “She didn’t know how to do these things. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m really focused on the wrong thing here. Like all my kids were doing awesome academically, but I’m not really preparing them for the next level. I’m not preparing the whole child.”

That, along with the birth of his first daughter, caused Dargatz to realize that he wouldn’t want his daughter in a classroom like his.

“I realized that I had to change things around,” Dargatz said.

Starting it up

That summer, Dargatz started doing research centered around the whole child approach. It also happened to be during that summer of 2014 that he started to volunteer on the Ice Age Trail, starting a “Tyke Hike” program.

It inspired him to try a similar program out in his classroom.

“My school has access to this beautiful parcel of land that nothing was going on in up to three years ago. It was just there,” Dargatz said,”We had just put in a garden five years ago, so I knew there was interest in outdoor learning opportunities.”

In August 2014, after several meetings with school and district administrators and studying Schlitz Audobon’s nature-based preschool, Dargatz was given the green light. He then built an approximately half-mile trail on the land with the help from his fellow Ice Age volunteers.

Side trails have also been created, and his students have helped restore the land by planting new trees and plants to replace invasive plants and grazing grass that took over the land, according to a member spotlight of Dargatz’s class on the North American Association for Environmental Education’s (NAAEE) website.

Program structure

Dargatz’s class spends some time outside every day. At the very least, students take a hike out to recess. Usually, they will complete at least one full lesson outside, with time built in for natural play. With nature days, the group reads a picture book on a topic building off the previous nature day. They then explore a part of the land in coordination with the day’s topic while finding new lessons.

Also part of the program is Dargatz’s emphasis on taking risks. He teaches basic lessons on boundaries, stick safety, spatial awareness, and the like. And although he is there to help students make safe choices, Dargatz said he is there to guide, not control, their decision-making.

“When given the chance and space to be independent in their decisions, they are motivated to safely learn, grow and achieve in our outdoor environment,” Dargatz said in the member spotlight.

Program growth, benefits

When the program started, Dargatz said, he learned a lot on the fly. It was just his classroom at first. Now, it is run in all five of the school’s kindergarten classrooms in some capacity and has a collaboration with the Retzer Nature Center in Waukesha. The school district is considering expanding the program into first grade. Parents, the school and community members have been very supportive of it, according to Dargatz.

Retzer Nature Center naturalist Larry Kascht has also noticed the program’s benefits, as well as with the partnership the center has with Dargatz’s class. The class alternates between visiting the center and hosting the center’s naturalists.

“It’s been a real fruitful partnership and a real fun model for all of us to pursue,” Kascht said.

Dargatz’s fellow kindergarten teacher Courtney Klein has seen the benefits of the program with her students as well. She noted that her students have become more independent, ask higher-level questions and think deeper on concepts.

“I think they’re more engaged because they want to be outside,” Klein said. “I think it’s natural for little kids to want to play, and I’m proud to be teaching in a district that appreciates that, that we’re not cutting recess minutes and getting rid of play time because it is so crucial to their development.”


So Long 2017…


We don’t know about you, but 2017 was a crazy ride. It seemed like it would never end, and yet it has. It was busy, but we accomplished a ton. We hope you had a great 2017 too.

To check out what we have been up to, read our Year in Review annual report on our website. Just look for Year in Review: 2017 on the News page.

Here are some highlights:

The 5th Grade Arbor Day Poster Contest made a comeback. Here are the winning posters.


The 2017 State Arbor Day Celebration went off without a hitch. A great day outside for 1,200 teachers and students from 20 mid-Michigan schools.





We planted 64 new trees across the state through our Tree Planting Grant program and our partnership with Michigan State University Federal Credit Union.


We’re looking forward to another great year. Here’s to new friends, partnerships, and experiences in 2018!

The Sense of Wonder: Going outdoors with kids

Introducing kids to nature at a young age can be a fantastic experience. It can also be beneficial for more than just your kids. Looking at the world around us through the eyes of a child can help us, as adults, rediscover the wonders of nature. If we take a page out of their book and just be present in the moment, use all of our senses, and enjoy the small things in the natural world, we can connect with both our children and nature on a whole new level.

Read this blog post by Super Nature Adventures and see how they were inspired to engage their “Sense of Wonder” by Rachel Carson’s book of the same name.

How Do Birds Keep Warm in Winter?

It’s getting cold here in Michigan. With temperatures in the single digits, people are bundling up and staying indoors. But what about the animals outside? How does something as small as a chickadee, for example, stay warm?

For those hardy northern birds that stick it out here all winter long, there are several things they can do. Check out this article by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to find out exactly how they do it.

How do birds keep warm in the winter?

December 18, 2017

Frosty common raven. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.
Frosty common raven. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.

Have you ever wondered how birds can stay warm in the cold winter months? Common redpolls are a great example. These energetic foragers weigh less than 15 grams and can survive temperatures that plunge nearly 100 degrees below the freezing point! How do they do it? Birds of all shapes and sizes have special adaptations for living in cold climates. Here are just a few examples of tough birds and their tips for staying warm.


Black-capped chickadee. Photo courtesy of David Mitchell/Creative Commons.
Black-capped chickadee. Photo courtesy of David Mitchell/Creative Commons.

Just like people, birds shiver to stay warm. Birds have much higher metabolic rates and burn more energy to stay warm than we do. Black-capped chickadees weigh less than half an ounce and can maintain a body temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit – even when the air is 0 degrees! They do this by having great insulation, being very active and remembering where they store their food. A steady supply of food is essential, because chickadees eat more than 35 percent of their weight every day! Compared to many other birds, chickadees have a large hippocampus – the part of the brain that’s responsible for spatial memory. In the fall, this part of their brain gets even bigger!

Fluffing feathers

Short-eared owl fluffing its feathers to stay warm. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.
Short-eared owl fluffing its feathers to stay warm. Photo courtesy of Steve Gifford.

Whether fat, fur or feathers, insulation matters for most cold-weather animals. All cold climate birds pack on body weight in the late summer and fall in anticipation of the long, cold winter, but feathers also play an important role. All birds stay warm by trapping pockets of air around their bodies. The secret to maintaining these layers of air lies in having clean, dry and flexible feathers. The cleaning process, generally known as preening, depends on the species of bird. While all birds produce a special oil from a gland near the base of their tails, some cold-tolerant birds use this oil to weatherproof their feathers. Other birds like egrets, herons and mourning doves grow special feathers that disintegrate into a powder that they use to waterproof their feathers. Regardless of what weatherproofing method they use, preening helps birds keep a water resistant top layer and a toasty warm inner layer.

Roosting and cuddling

Tree swallows during spring snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams/Creative Commons.
Tree swallows during spring snowstorm. Photo courtesy of Keith Williams/Creative Commons.

Similar to people who may cuddle for warmth, small birds like tree swallows crowd together in shrubs, vines and evergreen trees to share body heat. They can also slow down their metabolic rate to conserve energy. Cavity nesters like nuthatches, titmice and downy woodpeckers use tree cavities and nest boxes to stay warm. Cavities and boxes provide protection from the weather and help birds hide from predators. Larger birds like American crows and ring-billed gulls are also known to flock together for warmth.

Tucking feet and bills

Canada geese conserving heat in winter. Photo courtesy of Ted/Creative Commons.
Canada geese conserving heat in winter. Photo courtesy of Ted/Creative Commons.

Have you ever wondered how birds keep their legs warm? Waterfowl species circulate blood through a countercurrent heat exchange, isolating the blood that flows in their legs rather than circulating it throughout their entire bodies. This helps to keep their body temperatures higher. Birds also have specialized scales on their feet and legs that help minimize heat loss. Many ducks, geese, pelicans, gulls and swans further conserve body heat by standing on one leg or even sitting down. The Canada geese pictured here are tucking their bills under their back feathers, keeping their bills warm while also increasing breathing efficiency by utilizing warmer air.

How you can help

Downy woodpecker eating suet. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.
Downy woodpecker eating suet. Photo by Courtney Celley/USFWS.

Want to help birds make it through the winter? Consider providing high energy foods like suet, peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds. Water is essential year round, so adding a heated bird bath can help keep birds hydrated – just remember to keep the water clean! You can provide shelter for many species by installing roosting boxes or leaving dead trees that may be suitable for birds that depend on tree cavities. Planting fruit-bearing trees and shrubs can help attract species like cedar waxwings – just remember to make sure you’re planting native species. If fruit-bearing trees aren’t for you, consider planting an evergreen!

The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. We are both a leader and trusted partner in fish and wildlife conservation, known for our scientific excellence, stewardship of lands and natural resources, dedicated professionals and commitment to public service. For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit www.fws.gov.

Connect with our Facebook page at facebook.com/usfwsmidwest, follow our tweets at twitter.com/usfwsmidwest, watch our YouTube Channel at youtube.com/usfws and download photos from our Flickr page at flickr.com/photos/usfwsmidwest.

Tree Spotlight: Northern Catalpa

Catalpa is a tree you may not have heard of, but once you see one you won’t forget it. With showy spring flowers, bean-like pods, and bearing one of the largest leaves of any tree in the northern hemisphere, it is a beautiful sight. Let’s join the Arbor Day Foundation in shining the spotlight on one of the most unique Michigan trees.

And if you want to see a truly magnificent one, the Michigan State Record lives on the lawn of the Capitol in Lansing.

Northern Catalpa: Rarely Unnoticed

By James R. Fazio | November 7, 2017


Catalpa speciosa

Catalpa is a hard tree to overlook. Trumpet-shaped flowers herald its awakening for the summer and are soon followed by some of the largest leaves in the northern hemisphere. Elephant ears would not be too far off the mark for their description. Finally come the seed pods — bean-like in shape draping the tree like green tinsel.

There are two key species of catalpa in the United States — southern and northern catalpa. Originally, southern catalpa was more widespread, but when the pioneers discovered the northern species in a very limited area of the Midwest, it didn’t take long to realize that this one grew larger and could tolerate colder winters better. Thanks to its fast growth and rot-resistant wood — and a promotional campaign by Nebraska governor Robert W. Furnas, a contemporary of J. Sterling Morton — farmers began planting it for fence posts and to sell as railroad ties. Today, as a shade tree, it is widely distributed in parks and yards throughout the country.

Catalpa is not a tidy tree. Maintenance people complain about cleaning up after it when the flower petals, leaves, and seed pods drop. But that may be a small price to pay for this tree’s tolerance to a wide range of growing conditions, its dense shade, and the interest it adds to the landscape. Guy Sternberg, author of Native Trees for North American Landscapes, has said that the old trees of this species, “become rustic and picturesque, their weathered crowns testifying to the passage of previous wind storms, and would look very much at home towering over Boot Hill on Halloween.”

Whether young and vigorous or old and stagnated, catalpa is a tree in the landscape that is difficult not to notice and enjoy.

What’s in a Name?

The common names for catalpa are many and colorful. Some of these include Johnny smoker tree, Linden log tree, cigar tree, stogie tree, bean tree, western catalpa, hardy catalpa, Catawba, caterpillar tree, and fish-bait tree.

The scientific name makes less sense. The genus is the same as the common name, Catalpa, and comes from the name that Cherokee Indians used for this tree, Catawba. The species name, speciosa, is from the Latin for — not surprisingly — species. The “osa” part is from osus, or “full of,” said to be in reference to its showy flowers.

In the Landscape

The catalpa tree is a tree that demands your attention. White, showy flowers, giant heart-shaped leaves and dangling bean-like seed pods make is a great ornamental tree. It reaches up to 60 feet in urban settings and grows well in a wide range of soils (hardiness zones 4-8).

While not ideal for every location, this unique and hardy tree is a fast grower that finds a home in parks and yards throughout the country.

Why Wind Chill Matters

Winter weather is finally here! Time for snowshoeing, skiing, sledding, ice skating, and all other forms of winter fun.

But there is caution to this tale. While winter snow is great to play in, you need to be prepared for the cold. And this doesn’t just mean the mercury in the thermometer. We get our fair share of wind here too and wind chill is a definite factor.

This article by Mother Nature Network is a timely reminder of how to play it safe in winter. It could save your life.


Why wind chill matters

The temperature isn’t the only thing in play when you feel cold.

Man with umbrella during snow storm in the street


I’ve had early-stage hypothermia twice — once when I was in Smoky Mountain National Park when it was about 45 degrees. So, not that cold in terms of relative temperature, but it was both rainy and windy, and as I hiked along, I got colder and colder. Because of an earlier experience, I recognized the impending signs of hypothermia (intense body shivers followed by nausea and brain fog), stripped off my clothes, changed into dry ones, put plastic bags on my feet (my trusty boots had gotten soaked when I slipped in a stream), and did jumping jacks — even though I wanted to curl up on the ground for a nap. I recovered quickly and backpacked out of the park a few hours later.

Experiencing hypothermia when the air temperature is significantly above freezing is not uncommon. There are roughly 1,300 hypothermic deaths from cold each year, and more than half of them don’t occur during winter or in freezing temperatures.

One of the reasons there are more deaths from hypothermia in above-freezing temperatures is that temperature alone is actually a poor indicator of how cold a human body will feel out in the elements, and so people will find themselves cold and underdressed. That’s why estimates of how cold it really feels outside are important, wind chill being the most common way to gauge that.


How to calculate wind chill

Wind chill chart via NOAA.            If you want to figure out wind chill, this chart is a handy reference. (Photo: NOAA)

Wind chill can be factored a couple different ways, but all of them take into consideration wind speed and air temperature as the NOAA chart above does.

It doesn’t seem to make sense; the thermometer will read 45 degrees whether it’s windy, or rainy or sunny — so why do we feel so much colder when the air is moving?

Unlike animals that have insulating fur, human skin is better at evaporating excess heat than containing it. We lose heat quickly, because we normally radiate warmth from blood vessels beneath our skin. When the air is still, a heat envelope of sorts can form, but when the wind is blowing (or you’re moving through the air, as on a bike), that heat is immediately whisked away. The faster the wind, the more quickly your body heat dissipates — and at a wind speed of 25 mph or more, the human body can no longer keep up, no matter how hard it works.

So calculating how fast the wind is moving along with the temperature means that you’ll get an idea of how fast you’ll lose body heat. That’s wind chill. (On the flip side, during heat waves, the Heat Index takes into account temperature and humidity to give an idea of how hot it really feels.) Another method is Accuweather’s “Real Feel” estimator — it adds more information into the wind chill equation, “including the temperature, humidity, cloud cover, sun intensity, and wind.”

It only takes a dip below 95 degrees in body temperature for hypothermia to begin, so keeping your eye on the “feels like” or wind-chill temperatures is a good idea any time of year.

If you’re going to spend time in the great outdoors, you should always bring extra layers with you. The most common cause of death from hypothermia is when the weather turns quickly, and people who are out hiking, fishing, trail running or enjoying a day in the wilderness are caught without enough clothing to keep them warm.

Video: How Forests Make Lives Better

There’s nothing like a good video. They’re a fun way to pass the time. And if it’s educational, that’s just a bonus.

This is a great one we ran across by Walk in the Woods with Us. It visually shows a TON of things that trees give us, including many that we may not even realize we’re connected to.

The video image looks a little busy, but give it a chance. It goes through each part step-by-step in a really neat animation that pulls everything together.

So without further ado, sit back and enjoy the show!

How Forests Make Lives Better from Walk in the Woods with Us on Vimeo