Connect with us

Local news

How a Fayetteville Backyard Became a COVID-Free School With Nature in Charge



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – In a backyard just blocks from downtown Fayetteville, there is an educational utopia of sorts. Elementary school students spend their days with the sun on their faces and the breeze in their hair. During their hour-long recess, they sprint and scamper across grass, mulch and mud. They weave between trees laden with vibrant blossoms that flutter through the open-air spaces where they study.

Aided by ample space to spread out, the students and their teachers freely and happily breathe fresh air, only wearing masks if they enter the basement that houses a restroom, kitchen and occasional one-room schoolhouse. Their “classrooms” include a wooden gazebo and pavilion, a vegetable garden and a fire pit surrounded by stumps and situated by a babbling brook.

At the Bodark Nature School, situated in the 0.8-acre terraced backyard of Jerry Elizabeth “J.Liz” Griffith’s Dickson Street home, 20 children ages six to 12 spend nearly eight hours a day outside, studying naturalism, math, English, history and more. The outdoor school was founded nearly a year after Griffith, a Fayetteville defense attorney and mother of three, first contemplated its creation. She wanted children to learn to respect nature and the value environment by being fully immersed in it.

“I think that we have this misnomer that learning happens because we teach people,” Griffith said. “But there’s so much intelligence in nature that science and math, even literature, art, it all sort of begins in nature.”

Griffith, in collaboration with three other concerned mothers, created Bodark in fall 2020, hoping to create a pandemic safe haven for their children at the “community homeschool,” which functions like a cross between a homeschooling cooperative and a Montessori academy. Now, inspired by the year’s success, they are looking toward a more expanded, established future.

Going Outside

Griffith struggled for years to find the right educational fit for her children. Although the older two had gotten good grades in public school, they were not thriving socially. After homeschooling them alone for a year and hating it, Griffith joined a forest school co-op near West Fork in 2019.

“That’s when I realized how transformative being outside all day long was for my children,” Griffith said. “Their emotional intelligence increased, their social intelligence increased. They were just happy kids. Even in the rain and muck and cold and hot.”

Inspired, Griffith began dreaming of starting her own outdoor school. Then the pandemic hit, and after researching historical precedents, she recruited Liz Hill, a former teacher naturalist with an M.Ed. and experience in Montessori education and homeschooling. They were soon joined by Stephanie Jordan, a Fayetteville nutritionist who loved her children’s teachers at Washington Elementary School, but hated what remote learning did to her kids.

“They were just starting to get depressed,” Jordan said. “They weren’t hanging out with other kids, they weren’t playing. They couldn’t see people’s faces. I have one child who’s learning how to read and couldn’t see the teacher’s face with a mask on. And they started to become germaphobes, and it was super stressful.”

After word of the venture got out, interest developed so quickly that Hill promptly brought in her former Montessori colleague Rose Netherland. What was originally intended to be a school of no more than 16 children — those of the four women and a few neighbors — grew to 18 by Bodark’s launch in mid-August, then to 20. Griffith decided to limit the student-teacher ratio to 10:1, creating a waitlist now 18 children long.

Griffith spent over $32,000 turning her backyard into a nature school. She paid for construction projects that included building a sheltered pavilion where the younger students study, and converting her basement into a classroom space for use during lightning storms and for indoor activities like cooking. The school’s teachers and parents also donated some educational materials and erected a temporary tent that, along with a gazebo on the yard’s lower level, serves as the older students’ shelter.

Griffith chose the name Bodark, an alternative spelling of the bois d’arc (Osage orange tree), as a symbol of the school’s emphasis on naturalism and outdoor skills.

Challenging But Rewarding

Bodark’s students spend Monday-Thursday participating in group and individual studies, doing “community jobs” to keep the sprawling yard maintained, and learning survival and life skills like cooking, fire-building, foraging and mindfulness. Each teacher manages ten students, with Hill teaching third- through sixth-graders, and Netherland teaching kindergarteners through second-graders and providing Spanish lessons. On Fridays, Jordan leads the children in exploratory activities like hiking, archery and nature sanctuary field trips.

The benefits the children get from being outside are immense, Jordan said.

“It’s turned out to serve our kids in so many more ways than we anticipated,” Jordan said. “Their physical, social and emotional needs are met at school every day. They’re using their bodies, they’re healthy and active and strong. They’re confident. They’re becoming little naturalists, you know?”

But idyllic as the year has been, it has also been challenging, Hill said. Coping with the elements has sometimes proved difficult. During the winter, students had to bundle up in high-quality cold-weather gear including ski jackets and wool layers, and huddle around the fire pit.

And although Hill loves the beauty and freedom of Bodark, teaching such a wide range of ages without help has been difficult and draining, she said. There are no state-mandated curricula or assessments for homeschoolers in Arkansas, and homeschooling co-ops are not regulated. Hill and Netherland try their best to meet all students’ needs and tailor lessons based upon grade levels, employing a blend of Montessori curriculum materials and traditional standards-based tools like math workbooks.

But with limited resources, it is impossible to meet every recommended baseline for every child, and Hill acknowledged that some may have gaps in their education when they graduate from Bodark and begin junior high. However, she thinks the practical skills students learn, such as self-regulation, planning and time management, are essential for their future success.

“It’s like there’s these other life skills that they’re gaining that I think make up for maybe not being as far along with their division as they might have been had they stayed in public school,” Hill said. “And I wonder, well, would they (even) have understood it as well?”

Expanding Vision, Expanding Space

Griffith’s goal is to expand Bodark, hire as many new teachers as enrollment necessitates, and make the school a permanent community fixture. She is selling her house and purchasing more property on the outskirts of town. The school needs more land, woods, ponds, and space for a storage barn with a large, heated pavilion on each side, Griffith said.

Still, much about Bodark’s future is uncertain. The property Griffith hopes to buy is a thirty-minute drive from downtown, and several parents have said they won’t be able to transport their children there without a bussing system. She and the teachers are working on creating a scholarship fund and sliding-scale tuition system. Without this, the $550-per-student-per-month tuition fee may become prohibitively expensive for some families.

But Griffith is determined to make Bodark live on long after the pandemic is over. She sees outdoor education as essential to nurturing the next generation.

“I think that what we need to do is really immerse children into our natural environment,” Griffith said. “Not only is it healthier for them, biologically (and) physiologically, but also spiritually and emotionally.”