Keister Elementary’s Enchanted Forest
Brooke Imber
Harrisonburg City Public Schools, Virginia

outdoor classOne of the best things about being an elementary school art teacher is getting to dream big about all sorts of ideas with our littlest learners. As Keister Elementary School’s Art Teacher and Outdoor Learning Coordinator, I am lucky enough to see awesome, creative minds every day. I’ve been teaching art at KES for four years now. During my first year, I taught online because of the pandemic. Then, when students returned in-person in the spring of 2021, my art room was converted into a first-grade classroom for the rest of the school year. To continue teaching, I brought my art supplies on a cart to each homeroom throughout the day. But after a few weeks of this arrangement, I discovered that our school had portable seat-desks that I could take outside to our vibrant school garden. I taught my classes there for several weeks and was amazed at how teaching in a beautiful outdoor setting enhanced my lessons with greater levels of student engagement, more curiosity about the natural world, and a far more positive learning atmosphere.

shrineIn March 2022, our school counselor suggested we co-lead an after-school program focusing on restoring Keister’s neglected nature trail. At the time the nature trail was filled with trash and completely overgrown. With the help of Vine & Fig’s Educational Outreach Program and college volunteer groups, the trail was cleaned up and expanded. Elementary students in the club contributed by mulching trails, building forts (part of an ongoing project with myself and another college organization), decorating signs, and building “fairy homes” in the Fairy Forest (a space primarily created by younger grade levels during art class).


Photos by Bob Adamek

Following my excitement about the new nature trail, a colleague connected me with the parents of one of our kindergartners: Audrey and James Barnes, an Industrial Design Professor and an Outdoor Architecture PhD candidate, respectively. Audrey immediately offered up the idea to collaborate the following year (and had me absolutely sold when she mentioned potential fort building projects), so we co-wrote a grant application to the Harrisonburg Education Foundation. At the end of October 2022, HEF awarded us $5,000, which allowed Keister’s students to collaborate with JMU Design undergraduates to create a series of interactive installations and promote Restorative and Educational Play in nature.

drawingsIn February of 2023, JMU Professor Audrey Barnes and her students came to Keister to introduce industrial design concepts to our elementary school artists. This resulted in college and elementary students working together, side by side, to create prototype models of “Cool Hideout Spaces.” In under 10 days, the college students built full-scale 3D play forts based on my students’ ideas. To begin the next phase of this project, Audrey, James, and I discussed how to improve our school’s trail learning experience with KES content specialists. A staff survey identified barriers and goals, and college students analyzed the data for further insights. Through an art critique at the university, students presented their research about multiple aspects of outdoor learning spaces to all adult members involved in this project.

walkwayFourth grade artists were also able to go on a field trip to the Explore More Children’s Museum in downtown Harrisonburg, where they took part in hands-on activities with industrial designers. They brainstormed ideas for adding new features to the nature trail, like wayfinding systems and art stations. After this experience, the sophomore design students from James Madison University redirected their efforts to focus with group mates on creating trail maps and signage, a hobbit door entrance, and two large learning spaces: Stump School and Adventure Avenue. For Stump School, designers installed two large double-sided chalkboards, a weaving loom, two resin coated wooden tables, a class set of stumps for seating, and a teacher voice amplifying station. Adventure Avenue consists of a dragon shaped ramp system for parkour play, stumps of various heights for balance and jumping exercises, and a large rainbow climbing net suspended from trees.

notesThe collaboration of various groups of people made the new and improved “Enchanted Forest” a reality. The funding from the Harrisonburg Education Foundation provided the necessary materials for building installations, while Harrisonburg Public Works contributed beautiful live edge urban wood slabs for the tables, Hobbit door, and signs. Keister students, college volunteers, staff members, and families all played a part in creating and maintaining the trails. During the construction of Adventure Avenue, fifth grade students helped the college students by digging and enthusiastically partaking in the process. They even named the Dragon “Daniel” and asked teachers to assist with mulching during their recess. Professor Audrey Barnes provided guidance to her students at every step. This collaborative effort was celebrated with a grand opening ceremony in which around 300 individuals attended. Working at KES and with the students in this way has allowed me to see just how learning outdoors fosters confidence, problem solving skills, communication and imagination.

outdoor seating