May 19, 2022

Last year, the world was in lockdown, but kindergarteners at Penryn Elementary School in Penryn, California, found sanctuary in the forest thanks to teacher Joyce Mucher’s idea of outdoor learning.

Mucher’s ambition of bringing children outside the classroom and into nature has percolated for the most of her 34-year teaching career, but COVID-19 constraints enabled her dream to become a reality.

“Sometimes, it’s a slow process to do anything that’s new or different,” Mucher tells PEOPLE. “So [the restrictions] became the opportunity to do things that in the past may not have been received as open-mindedly.”

When Mucher discovered just before the start of the school year that her kindergarteners would be completing all of their education digitally, she was determined to find a better option.

“Kindergarten is supposed to be magical,” an emotional Mucher says. “I fear for them at this time right now. So as long as I’m making it magical, I’m doing what I’m here to do.”

She expressed her concept of being able to teach outside in a true “kindergarten” or “child’s garden” similar to those seen in Canada and Europe, and the parents enthusiastically agreed.

The rural K–8 school, located north of Sacramento, has a magnificent area nearby that was just waiting to be transformed into an elfin forest. Parents organized a work party, bringing weed whackers, shovels, and a tractor to clear the wooded area, including a creek, blackberry brambles, and trees. All of the children pitched in.

A parent constructed a little stage for the children’s play and performances. Another donor provided seated stumps. Another created an outdoor dry erase board that could be closed off to protect it from the elements.

Suddenly, it became more than a kindergarten area. It became a resource for children of all ages.

“It just turned into a very beautiful, versatile space,” Mucher, who will be retiring after this school year, says. “Everything I thought could happen with it happened.”

“Being outside showed them in a different light than what we see in the classroom,” Mucher says. “They were able to problem solve and use skills that go beyond pencil and paper.”

The following year will see an increase in outdoor activities.