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Children learn in outdoors at Freckled Fawn Nature School

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Andy Atkisnon / Mail TribuneJihan Nicholas (left) and Mlissa Moore sign with students at Forest Park in Jacksonville Wednesday morning.
Andy Atkisnon / Mail TribuneStudents Rowan and Sterling look for wildlife at Forest Park in Jacksonville Wednesday morning.
Andy Atkisnon / Mail TribuneBen Moore helps students build a teepee at Forest Park in Jacksonville Wednesday morning.
Andy Atkisnon / Mail TribuneBen Moore helps students pretend to row across the creek at Forest Park in Jacksonville Wednesday morning.
Andy Atkisnon / Mail TribuneJihan Nicholas interacts with students at Forest Park in Jacksonville Wednesday morning.

JACKSONVILLE -- Park up Reservoir Road, get out of the car, start following the steep winding trails and you may start to hear the faint sound of school children.

The youngsters might be playing with sticks and making shapes with them or digging in the dirt with shovels.

After a bit of free play to start the morning at Freckled Fawn Nature School, there’s always “circle time,” which involves instructors leading the children in song.

The “big idea” for this week: autumn. Timely, considering the recent change in season. So it was only appropriate that one of the songs children sang Wednesday was about leaves.

“I need to hear your voices sing with me. Ready? I know you’ll like this one,” instructor Jihan Nicholas said to the students, holding several leaves. “Five golden leaves hanging in the tree/dancing golden in the sun/when along came the wind.”

This morning routine of play and song is just a sample of the happenings at Freckled Fawn, which enrolls students in preschool all the way up to second grade.

The idea for the school came from Melissa Moore, an alumna of Southern Oregon University. Once she graduated with an early childhood education degree, she found work at a nursery and began focusing on development of children ages 0-5.

“The group of students that I was working with had a lot of trauma in their lives and I found that it was healing, being in nature,” Moore said. “It was pretty amazing to see that healing process happen. Their energy levels dropped. There was this sense of calm.”

Moore married her partner, Ben, also a SOU grad, and the couple started having children. When Moore watched her oldest daughter go to preschool, she felt the need for her to get outside more often.

“I had this desire to provide … a safe place for them to explore [that was] nature-based,” Moore said. “So, I can stay home and provide something for my children as well as children in the valley.”

Ben, who earned a degree in environmental science, at one time taught kids about salmon habitat. His love of science eventually channeled into a desire to teach at the nature school with his wife.

“I went back to my childhood, thinking, ‘I loved being outdoors all the time and a lot of kids don’t get that chance,’” he said. “After teaching here for a little while, you just get so excited to see the kids getting excited out here. It’s just infectious.”

While the nature school’s methods of instruction include “play-based learning,” Moore emphasized that “academics is important,” even though Freckled Fawn does not have a schoolhouse with desks.

“Everything we do for grade school follows the state standard,” she said. “It’s just the way we instruct for that state standard.”

That is true for a common standard like the ability to count from one through 10.

“We’re taking that standard and we’re implementing it in a way, in nature, that is going to be more concrete for them because they are using their whole body,” Moore said. “They might not have paper and pen all the time, but it is something they use.”

Jamie Diamond, who recently moved to Jacksonville with his family from Wyoming, enrolled his 3-year-old, Brooklyn, at Freckled Fawn after his wife googled the term “wild schooling.”

“As parents, we weren’t as concerned about Brooklyn’s A,B,Cs and 1,2,3s as much as we were concerned about her emotional well-being and being able to play and learn a lot more through play than a traditional school,” Diamond said.

Another factor in sending Brooklyn to Freckled Fawn was the couple’s previous experience in the traditional school system with their other children.

“We didn’t want those kinds of pressures that early for Brooklyn,” Diamond said.

Brooklyn has been outfitted with rain gear to brave Oregon’s fall and winters and it’s clear she approves of Freckled Fawn.

“She came home the other day and jumped in a giant mud puddle and she was fine with it,” Diamond said. “I want my kids to be able to jump in a mud puddle and not have it be a bad thing at 3-years-old.”

Brooklyn attends Freckled Fawn during the afternoon session. In just a few short months, her family is starting to see the return on investment.

“You can just see the delight she has wanting to go there and also when she’s done, how much fun she had in a positive atmosphere,” Diamond said.

In an era when it’s difficult to maintain a life without electronics, he and his wife’s approach has been to let their children start using things like iPads “in moderation” starting a certain age.

“We can see an impact if our kids don’t get outside or do creative play,” Diamond said.

Less screen time is getting Diamond’s kids interested in more creative play, much like the nature school. The family did a “very steep adventurous” hike one Friday when they were not in school and the kids seemed to enjoy it.

“I’m just so glad we can do those things rather than be shut inside thinking that we have to be in the four walls to survive,” Diamond said.