By David Sedeño
The Texas Catholic
What started out as an initiative to give students more outside time at Mount St. Michael Catholic School in Dallas has turned out to be a bonus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Called “Farm to Fable,” the initiative at the classical education school aims to foster “less screen time, more green time.” With the help of students, teachers, parents, volunteers, and alumni the campus has been transformed with more outdoor learning spaces, gardens, a barn and the introduction of a dog, miniature goats, and a rescue horse.
“This has allowed us a chance for normalcy because these children have been dumped in a COVID world of masks, social distancing, constant sanitizing,” said Renee Ozier, the school’s principal. “This allows them to get back into nature, to get outside and learn. Studies show that creative-thinking and problem-solving are enhanced while learning in nature.”
The Farm to Fable project began last school year with fundraising events and clearing of an area near the entrance of the school. A corral was constructed and within a few weeks so was the construction of a red and white barn. Construction of outdoor furniture to serve as desks and benches and an amphitheater, with seating and a stage deck, followed.
In the past few weeks as the weather has cooled, more time has been spent outdoors. On a recent morning, a handful of students were doing classwork outside in one part of the campus. At the amphitheater, fourth and fifth-grade students were rehearsing poetry with synchronized motions. A few children helped lead a horse to a large pasture and they touched its neck as it walked and grazed. And in the barn and corral area, the younger students played and fed several miniature mix breed African Pygmy Nigerian dwarf dairy goats, which have blue eyes.
Kim Greenough-Hodges, a school parent whose family has helped tame the goats and preparing them for transitioning to the school barn complex, held one of the goats so that the children could pet it.
“Before COVID, parents were increasingly unsettled with the way children don’t go outside and explore,” she said. “This experience is about embracing the outdoors and learning to respect the world around us.”
Shannon Chance, the school’s development director whose children first began attending the school in 2002, said that even before students experienced outdoor learning, they had to prepare the area by digging holes, planting trees and plants. That experience allowed them to experience the various layers of the soil from grass to clay to limestone.
“For boys, especially, it’s really great to be outside and they don’t have to sit still,” she said. “They can fidget while they are doing their work. Our outdoor classroom desks can convert into benches so they can stretch out and listen to the teacher at the same time.”
Even as the temperatures dip a bit, students will still be able to go outside for various lessons, fitted properly with coats, gloves and boots.
“We’re wrapping in hoodies, sweaters and gloves,” Ozier said. “We’ll be working, weeding the gardens, harvesting vegetables, and feeding and taking care of the horses and goats. All of these are opportunities to experience God’s creation.”