If you stop to visit Samantha Eaton’s kindergarten class, her students might be found learning outside of Red Bank Elementary as often as inside. The Hamilton County Schools Teacher of the Year starts her young learners early in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) education with her forest kindergarten program. The innovative learning experience for the Red Bank Elementary children has vaulted Ms. Eaton to the next level in the Tennessee Teacher of the Year program as she is as a Regional-level finalist.
Samantha Eaton has taught at Red Bank Elementary for the past five years, and she has nine years of teaching experience. She considers herself a researcher and loves to search for answers to help her students learn. Six years ago, she asked her school leader the question that started a new adventure for Red Bank Elementary and her kindergarten children. She asked, “Have you ever heard of STEAM?” That simple question was a launching point for innovative learning.
"Leaders from across the nation have visited our little school to see the amazing things happening here because of the adventure of learning that began that day,” Ms. Eaton said.
She is now using the concepts of STEAM education in her forest kindergarten to teach her young learners. Reading performance has been a consistent high point for student progress in her classroom. At the beginning of the year, 14 of her students were reading below grade level, four were reading on grade level, and one was above grade level. December benchmarks showed those numbers completely flipped. Now, only two students are below grade level, six are reading on grade level, and 12 are reading above grade level.
“As I developed my forest kindergarten model, I found significant research on the impact that it would have on my students socially, emotionally and academically, but I never thought I would see the impact so quickly,” Ms. Eaton said.
“We spend half of the day inside doing traditional kindergarten activities at an accelerated pace and the rest of the day is spent outdoors with natural experiential learning,” Ms. Eaton said. “Outside, the children are following their passion projects or what they are excited about learning.”
In forest kindergarten, the young learners explore the world around them building social skills, creativity, and collaboration. The children are encouraged to be problem solvers and to develop critical thinking. They develop reading and writing skills using journals to record their scientific observations and field guides to become active researchers. The students look for evidence of the past searching for fossils in the creek near the school. The class also cleans-up around the creek and they talk about why taking care of resources is important.
For one project, the class discussed building a community outside of the school. The group built an electric station as part of the lesson.
“It is amazing to see the level of thought they put into these projects,” Ms. Eaton said. “While building the electric station, they requested to build working solar panels – these are five-year-olds.”
The students have built a dam, designed and built a boat to send an “adventure slug” on a trip, and worked to engineer a solution for a bridge over the creek that floats away when the water gets high.
“I feel like the most rewarding part of outdoor learning is seeing the passion for learning it ignites in my students and how far they take it,” Ms. Eaton said. “It’s amazing!”