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Lessons come alive in the school forest

The Minnesota School Forest Program is a partnership between school districts and the Department of Natural Resources that provides students opportunities to learn about natural resources through a variety of educational activities.

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Mike Litchter is the Park Rapids Area DNR forestry supervisor. He shared fun facts about the forest with Century School students from Emilee Little and Kim Lembcke's kindergarten classes during their field trip to the Brush Lake School Forest. Contributed / Century School

Land for school forests may come from someone who donates land to the district or by acquiring tax-forfeited land that the county gave to the school districts.

Kindergarten discoveries

Kindergarten students from Century School traveled to the Brush Lake School Forest on Oct. 6.

One of their teachers, Kim Lembcke, said her students had a lot to share about their favorite parts of the experience when they returned to school.

“They loved learning about moss, mushrooms, fungus, trees, how leaves make noise, the different parts of trees that animals eat, seeing a mouse whose home was in a hole of a tree, and learning what woodpeckers do to trees,” she said.

“We had discussions about all that they saw and learned. In my classroom, we read lots of books before we go to the school forest, talking about what we might see, so they were excited to see all the different colored leaves, kinds of trees and signs of animals in the forest. Every year, the kids are excited about the possible sighting of a bear, but they're always disappointed when not one bear is spotted.”

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She said being able to experience what they have seen in books first-hand makes learning come alive.

“They return to the classroom ready to talk and write about their visit to the school forest,” she said. “In kindergarten, that might be drawing pictures, writing a few words or writing full sentences. Oftentimes, just a class discussion talking about all that we saw is what really helps kids to realize all that they learned in the school forest. I think it teaches students how important it is to appreciate the great outdoors, all that there is to learn from it and how to take care of it for many years to come.”

High School visit

Students in Kevin Longtin’s forestry class at Nevis School recently went to the school forest to bud-cap the trees that staff from the Hubbard Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) planted earlier this summer.

Forestry students made the bud caps and Hubbard SWCD did a quick demonstration, showing how to put them on the trees.

A bud cap is a piece of paper wrapped and stapled around the terminal leader and bud of the tree. This protects the terminal bud while allowing the tree to grow up through the paper during the next growing season.

Brandon Spain-Brist said he and Longtin hope to develop more learning experiences for Nevis High School students involving the school forest.

DNR partnership

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Brad Witkin is the coordinator of the school forest program at the Park Rapids DNR office.

“I’ve been involved with school forest education since I came in 2004, and it was going well before that,” he said.

“I try to tell them things they would understand at their age level. It’s neat to see kids who haven’t been in a forest, and also those who know a lot about it and are telling me what’s what.”

Witkin said there are three school forests in the Park Rapids district: Brush Lake, one near Two Inlets and one near Lake George.

“I believe the Brush Lake School Forest is about 100 acres, and it’s the only one with developed trails,” he said. “It also has a couple of shelters. The others are strictly forests.”

Witkin is often the DNR staff member who meets with classes, with coworkers filling in when needed.

“It’s an outdoor classroom,” he said. “For kindergarten through fifth grade at Century, they take a bus out to the Brush Lake Forest, located about 10 miles from Park Rapids, once a year and hike the trails. Each class has a different topic that they hit each year. The other two school forests aren’t used a whole lot. I have had high school classes go to the other ones to learn forestry, how to inventory timber and that kind of thing.”

Witkin sees many benefits to the school forest program. “Just getting them out there in the fresh air experiencing the forest,” he said. “I think there are a number of kids that don’t have that opportunity with their family. For high school students, it might spark an interest in getting someone to pursue a forestry career.”

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The DNR manages the timber in the school forests and provides natural resource education and materials for students.

Visitors welcome

School forests are open to the public for hiking, although Witkin said hunting is prohibited.

Go to the Park Rapids Area Schools website for directions to the Brush Lake School Forest.

A short driveway and circular parking area are located towards the north end of the property and a looped trail system exists on the property accessible from the parking area. Two small shelters and a pit toilet are positioned along this trail system.

The property is entirely forested, except for a small marsh and pond located toward the northeast side of the property. Brush Lake lies along the south edge of the property. The topography is level to gently rolling.

“We try to maintain the trails around the time school starts,” Witkins said. “There are three loops out there. Typically, fifth graders also go out and use those trails to snowshoe in the winter.”

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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