Kenwood Community School celebrated a new partnership with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on May 24, officially opening its “school forest” at Cedar Lake Park.
Students at the school listened to traditional Native American songs and planted ferns near the shore of Cedar Lake. Former Kenwood parent Angie Erdrich cut a ceremonial ribbon to commemorate the opening of the forest, which includes 12 acres of parkland near Upton Avenue.
“[The designation] is an opportunity for you to gain skills and knowledge,” said Karen Harrison, school forest coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “But also, it’s great for your health.”
School forests are DNR-approved natural spaces that schools use for educational activities. The agency says any natural space, from a forest to a prairie to a schoolyard, can be a school forest, as long as a school agrees to take care of it.
The celebration came about four years after Kenwood parents, teachers and community members began pursuing the designation, which allows them to access DNR curricular materials, trainings and programming. Parents and staff at the school organized a “school forest” committee and obtained the Park Board’s permission to conduct programming at Cedar Lake Park. They also worked with the School Board to pass a “school forest” resolution.
Erdrich, a pediatrician, came up with the idea of making Cedar Lake Park a school forest after her family moved to the neighborhood in 2010. She said the designation seemed like a good way to get curricular resources for Kenwood, adding that teachers at the school already use the park for activities like nature walks and science projects. The music teacher even held a choir concert there once, she said.
“[Using the woods] is kind of a year-round thing,” she said.
Fifth-grade teacher Julie Young Walser said many teachers at Kenwood have read Richard Louv’s 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which notes the importance of exposing children to nature. She said spending school time outdoors is especially important for kids living in apartment buildings, who don’t necessarily have nature close to them.
“Kids often bring their families [to Cedar Lake Park] to share the forest with them after school or on weekends,” she said. “They really feel ownership of it.”
Fifth-grade teacher Darwin Lee said he, too, is a big proponent of getting kids outside in any way possible. He said the school forest is an opportunity to show how “being outside [and] learning about nature is important.”
“I think that’s where the jobs of our future are,” he said. “We’ve got to get kids outside [and] seeing what’s going on outside so they know so they can start making changes.”
The Cedar Lake Park school forest is one of two school forests in Southwest Minneapolis and one of five in Minneapolis, Harrison said. There are more than 140 statewide.
Harrison said the goal of the program is to help create awareness and appreciation for natural resources. She said additional benefits include helping students develop creativity, improve their focus and practice real-world skills.
Kenwood teachers and parents said they feel especially lucky that their school forest is close to the school.
“To make that connection in our own neighborhood is so much better than getting on a bus and driving somewhere,” music teacher Cindy Quehl said. “All of the connections that can be made in the forest are even enhanced by the fact that this is a part of our neighborhood.”