While Learning Tree Elementary School was already utilizing some outdoor learning, especially with its youngest students, the COVID-19 pandemic served as a catalyst for enhancing those efforts, and most students spent as much time outdoors as indoors — if not more — last school year.

Students "love it" outdoors, and "they collaborate outside, then bring those skills into the classroom," said Twila Brown, who teaches grades five and six and is Learning Tree's principal. "We have good technology here — every student has a Chromebook — but we believe in that balance, teaching children about God through his words and his works."

Multiple outdoor classrooms have internet access, and there's enough outdoor learning space for every student to be outside at the same time, Brown said.

"I think my favorite (outdoor) classroom is 'Sweet Gum Cove,' (because) it's like you're in a fairy forest."

Utilizing more outdoor learning "was one of the best things we did," said teacher Tim Knowlton. "That was a time they could take their masks off, because we were outside and distanced, and that was a blessing for kids, because everyone gets tired of wearing a mask all the time."

Brenda Hagan teaches students ages 4-6, and they begin most every day with two hours outdoors, a combination of collaborative, planned nature projects and "time for them to discover on their own," she said. "Being outside really helps them focus better academically when we come back inside, and they develop skills — (like) cooperation and problem-solving — outside."

Some students have caught fish in the creek that runs through outdoor classrooms with paper clips, string and corn kernels from lunch, Brown marveled.

"It gives them such a joy for learning out there that they want to come to school."

And even as the pandemic recedes, the school has no plans to cease, or even curtail, outdoor learning, Brown said.

"We had a really successful year last year, and we had the least amount of illnesses of any year I can remember."

Between all the outdoor time, social distancing, keeping doors and windows open to promote ventilation and air flow, and wearing masks indoors, the school was able to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks, as well as other seasonal viruses, like the flu, she said. Students were provided masks, which the school washed every night, but Brown plans to go mask-free for 2021-22.

The school also utilized desk dividers and shields indoors, which will remain in use until deemed no longer necessary, Brown said.

"We're super safe (as a school), but we are opening up" next school year.

The school's athletic teams didn't play last school year due to the pandemic but plan to return for 2021-22, said Knowlton, the school's athletic director.

"It was frustrating for kids last year, not to be able to play, especially the eighth-graders."

Field trips were basically banned, too, but those are scheduled to return, including the annual year-end trip to the nation's capital that Knowlton leads for eighth-graders, which was lost to the pandemic in 2019 and 2020, he said. The week-long, end-of-year outdoor adventures for grades five, six and seven, which include canoeing, horseback riding and cave exploring, will also return.

Learning Tree will pilot a new agriculture-based curriculum in grades kindergarten-eight next school year, part of which is establishing a school garden, Brown said. "Every grade has their own" boxes for gardening.

Hagan has already planted "a sensory garden" full of various herbs for her charges, she said. "We had enough time at the end of the year for them to do some watering out here, and they'll get to see how they've grown when they come back" for the start of the new school year in August.

She's also planted flowers in hopes of attracting butterflies for her students, she said.

"I want them to be able to see the life cycle in real life, not just from pages in a book."

In addition to outdoor learning, the individual attention afforded by small class sizes is another attraction to Learning Tree, Brown said. Lower grades limit class sizes to 10-12, while upper grades are capped around 15-16.

The school currently teaches 60-70 students, and only "about 10 spots are open" for 2021-22, Brown said. Those interested can call the school at (706) 278-2736 or email Brown at twbrown@learningtreeschool.org or Niki Knowlton at secretary@learningtreeschool.org.

"There's maybe one spot in prekindergarten and kindergarten, a few in first and second, and maybe one in fifth and sixth," said Niki Knowlton, a teacher and secretary at the school. "They're filling up fast."

"There's no room in (grades) three and four, but some openings in (grades) seven and eight," said Knowlton, who teaches multiple subjects to students in grades five-eight. "We had a very large eighth-grade class graduate."

Learning Tree Elementary School has been part of the Dalton community since 1948, and the school shares a property on South Tibbs Road with the Dalton Seventh-day Adventist Church, but "one doesn't have to be Adventist to attend" the private school, which is accredited by the Adventist Accrediting Association for Schools, Colleges and Universities, the National Council for Private School Accreditation and the Georgia Private School Accreditation Council, Brown said. More than a third of current students are denominations other than Adventist, as the school is open to anyone "who loves Jesus and wants to learn more."

While chapel services and Bible classes are part of daily life at the Adventist school, so are traditional subjects like art, math, music, science and social studies, Brown said. Beginning with the 2021-22 academic year, which opens Aug. 10, Spanish will be available for students in grades kindergarten-four.

More information on the school can be found online at www.learningtreeschool.org. Tours can be set up by emailing Brown or Niki Knowlton or calling the school.

With Tim and Niki Knowlton teaching at the school, and their children, Reid, a rising sixth-grader, and Avery and Olivia, both heading into third grade in 2021-22, attending, "we all get to drive to school together in the morning, and we're here together all day," said Tim Knowlton, who teaches grades seven and eight. "That's pretty special, and not a lot of families can do that."

"Of course I love" Learning Tree, Olivia Knowlton said. "I like all of" the subjects, especially when her class learns outside, as well as understanding concepts though creativity.

"We made caterpillars out of marshmallows and ate them, and we made slime," she said. She also learned sign language last year from teacher Joyce Bourgeois.

"I'll see (Olivia) doing the signs sometimes when music is on in the car," her mother said. "The teachers here do a really good job of taking what they'd teach inside and doing that in the outdoor classrooms."

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