Home Posts What Happened When We Swapped Online School For Time In The Wilderness
What Happened When We Swapped Online School For Time In The Wilderness

What Happened When We Swapped Online School For Time In The Wilderness

On Zoom, it was a typical kindergarten morning: little boys and girls in little squares arrayed on the computer screen like the opening credits to the “Brady Bunch,” each patiently waiting their turn to share what they did over the pandemic weekend.

Except for one, my daughter spent the two-dimensional kindergarten class screaming under the table or crying in her chair because the teacher had put her on mute. Many months later, the school psychologist would suggest that she be evaluated for autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. (Her diagnosis is currently being determined.)

My son, a bright and hyperactive second grader with sensory processing issues, hijacked the lesson by sharing his screen, changed his name to “Yo Johnny, Minecraft at 4:00,” and blew up the chat feed with video game jargon. He replaced his background picture with a ridiculous photo of himself, then hopped out of the frame to see if the teac

As a teacher, I knew that online school contradicted all of the best teaching practices. The computer-based instructional format, which we'd been using since spring 2020, when schools were closed due to the coronavirus, proved disastrous for neurodiverse, high-energy, kinesthetic learners like my kids.

My children were not learning, and worse, they were frequently angry, upset, depressed, anxious, and constantly fighting, and my hair was literally falling out as a result of the stress.

I decided one day that we would skip the Zooms and spend the day at a deserted beach; fortunately, we live in Juneau, Alaska, in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, which has more miles of trails than roads.

It was a cold but sunny day, with snow covering the mountains and ice fusing the rocks beneath our feet. In the cold wind, my children stacked and balanced stones with mittened hands, and I considered letting nature teach them.

My friend Jennifer Walker used to run a forest kindergarten school, an educational model in which school takes place in forests or woodlands and focuses on learner-led outdoor play. She told me how unstructured play in the woods helped children regulate their emotions, build resilience, and develop empathy for all living creatures.

“When we are on uneven ground, experiencing the earth shifting at every step, we build the capacity and confidence to move into the next thing,” explained Steve Merli, a teacher and “Discovery Southeast” naturalist in Juneau. “Our neurobiology originated from the experience of being outdoors all or most of the time.”

Every day, we explored moss-shrouded trails, empty rocky beaches, and secluded alpine meadows abundant with wildflowers, instead of filling out worksheets. While rain pelted their faces and wind whipped, my children climbed trees and created magic wands with beach glass, shells, and heart-shaped rocks.

We no longer felt alone in nature, but rather as part of a vast symbiotic ecosystem, connected to something larger than ourselves. We slowed down, stopped fighting, and felt at peace.

“How do trees talk to each other?” “Why is the tide so high during a full moon?” “What are all these big metal wheels near the beach where a mine used to stand?” “Why is there snow on the tops of mountains but not below?” “Do trees die in the fall, or are they just resting?”

We returned home and researched the answers to our questions, learning about how trees communicate and share nutrients through their roots, mitochondria, and the pheromones they emit through the air, as well as how the moon controls the tide, and thus our moods and behavior, as we are also made of water.

We learned the names of wild berries and mushrooms and harvested the ones that were safe to eat, as well as which bushes stung the skin when exposed to sunlight and which ones cured the stings. At home, my children wrote and illustrated stories inspired by our adventures, and we read books about the Devil's Club, ravens, tides, and Native Tlingit culture.

My daughter, who used to cry in agony during her online classes, now joyfully sings to the sea, and my son, who used to seethe in his seat while the teacher explained multiplication over Zoom, has discovered his own mathematical patterning from beatboxing and parkour jumping over boulders.

When school resumed in the fall, the rainy season had turned to sideways sleet, forcing us indoors. My children had already become feral, swapping out their toys for rocks, shells, mud, and plants. My daughter chewed sticks and leaves she pulled off the houseplants, turned my guitar strings into bracelets, and beheaded my flowers to make bracelets.

Because my daughter had grown accustomed to the mountain's echo, it was as if she had forgotten how to speak; when she screamed over Zoom, her teacher put her on mute, and she burst into tears under the table once more.


My son, who had spent the day leaping over large boulders and climbing trees, struggled to sit passively in front of the computer, stomping around the house, growling like the bears that roamed our neighborhood.

But I don't regret the days I spent "unschooling" my kids because the wilderness inspired them to be curious and joyful learners in ways that online school could not.

They returned to traditional school in May, but we continue to explore nature, and they continue to bombard me with questions and observations.

My daughter exclaimed, "Look! The trees are talking to each other!" during a recent adventure as we strolled between blueberry bushes and under canopies of witch's hair moss.

Roots wove up and over each other like Tlingit spruce baskets under our feet, and tree trunks adorned with glowing colonies of yellow lichen shone gold in the setting sun. At that moment, with my hiking boots firm on the uneven soil, I felt confident that we could handle any challenge that awaited us.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is this one.

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