About 400 parents and kids gathered at the West Point on the Eno last Saturday for the 30th anniversary of Schoolhouse of Wonder. The organization has led nature classes for kids at the Eno River since 1989, and was celebrating with storytelling, s’mores at campfires and games.
Despite the torrential rains this area has seen all summer, the weather last Saturday kept calm and Schoolhouse held its celebrations in a perfect, temperate evening.
Children gathered to make fire, whittle and practice tomahawk throwing. As Annabelle and Lillie Barbour, 12 and 10, busily whittled away, Annabelle said to another girl, “Could you aim that a little away from (Lillie)?” “Yeah,” Lillie chimed in, “it’s like you’re trying to kill me.”
At a fire making spot, 8-year-old Isabella Reynolds made a little fire in the straw, which is a skill her mom, Carrie Reynolds, said she has learned at Schoolhouse and at other nature classes in the area. Isabella is homeschooled, so getting out to programs such as the ones offered by Schoolhouse allows her to interact with other children.
“She’s just a very social girl, so teaching her these skills is important. And when she has success (at making fires) – that is, if the parents don’t take over – then it also builds confidence,” Reynolds said.
It’s one of the missions Schoolhouse, founded in 1989, has cultivated from the beginning, as well as instilling a sense of connection to nature in children.
“It’s not every city that has this amazing park (like the Eno) within city limits,” said Executive Director Wendy Tonker. “So to make people aware and have a connection with it is key. If kids aren’t going to those parks, then it’s a much higher hill to climb for them to be good stewards of those places later on.”
Tonker herself became involved with Schoolhouse first as a parent, then as a board member. At Schoolhouse’s new office at the Mechanics & Farmers Corporate Building on U.S. 15-501, Tonker spoke about her thoughts on nature education as her young son played with toys on a bean bag beside her desk.
Tonker had enrolled her oldest son with Schoolhouse in 2009. She was trying to get her son to go outside instead of spending all his time on computers.
“I would tell the camp counselors, ‘Whatever you do, do not let him go on the computer. He will try to get on the computer, but just don’t let him do it.’ But they were so nice. And every afternoon, he would still find a way to get on the computer,” she said, chuckling.
Speaking on the need for nature education for children now, Tonker said many children are not playing outside without supervision anymore.
“Kids are not playing anymore for an undetermined amount of time outside. And kids learn things when they play, like problem-solving, conflict resolution. They come up with games themselves. These are soft skills that will inform kids’ abilities as they move through the world as adults,” Tonker said.
In 2011, Tonker became executive director. Since then, the organization has expanded into Wake County and Orange County and added new classes. Schoolhouse enrolled about 6,000 students total this past summer, according to Tonker, and added a new class in geology. The organization also now has 20 full-time employees.
The Wake programs have been particularly successful and grown steadily since they started in 2014. The Wake programs alone made up about 1,000 students this year, according to staff. In 2014, it began with about 200.
The Wake programs operate in Umstead Park and at Harris Lake at Apex. Schoolhouse was able to expand into Umstead because the City of Raleigh had shut down its own camps there in 2013. Schoolhouse’s Orange County programs are in Brumley Nature Preserve.
Carin Gray has been enrolling her kids, 10 and 7 years old, in the Orange County programs for the past three years. Gray started camping when she was in college, and she likes that her kids are learning those skills earlier in life. Gray also does rock-climbing, but she said it has been harder to get her kids to challenge themselves with that.
“At first, as a parent, we were worried that (Schoolhouse) wasn’t organized enough. They put a lot of responsibility on the kids. They make the kids responsible from the time they’re dropped off to the time they leave,” Gray said. “Before they went, they didn’t have a huge interest in going to the creek and going and looking under the rocks. Now they’re ready to roll, and they want to teach us about it.”
“It’s nice to see that they have that knowledge and they’re interested in it,” she said.
“The way that we treat kids and handle behavior management is different from a lot of organizations,” said Meg Gulledge, staff director. “We are outside all day. Unless it’s storming, we are outside.”
“We are very old school,” Gulledge added. “I think parents like seeing that, that this is what they did as kids, playing outside until it’s dark and that’s when you come home. They want their kids to have that same experience.”
And in her experience, children also take to playing outside and adapt quickly.
“It’s interesting. It’s very natural to kids,” Gulledge said. “They’ll get so excited. And as soon as they learn a few things, they’ll just build this immaculate hut.”
“But there’s definitely a wall that you have to break down,” she added, and gave an example of a little girl who did not want to wade into a creek. “She was afraid to play in the creek because she said there were alligators. And you think that well, if she’s always lived in a place where there are no creeks, maybe she would think there were alligators.”
At the 30th anniversary celebration, families parked themselves out on foldout chairs and beach blankets and listened to storytellers both professional and amateur. As the light dimmed, everyone relaxed and just listened. The older kids ran around and mothers strolled with small children.
Dave Cook and Wayne Poole, co-founders of Schoolhouse, both told stories and sang. Poole told a story about a doctor in Durham who cleverly taught a bunch of boys a lesson about not wasting food that involved watermelons and a giant needle. Cook played guitar and sang a folk song about the Eno called, “Long Time Ago Days.” “Kind of a ghastly song,” he said. The song had been collected by Margaret Nygard, who had been instrumental in preserving the land and founding the Association for the Preservation of Eno River Valley in 1966.
Camp counselor Maddy Rossie told a fairy tale story about a bear who was sent to deliver gifts to the king. On his journey, the bear stopped to give the gifts to other people, so the king imprisoned him for failing his mission. But in the end, the bear was rescued by the grateful people to whom he had given the gifts.
Raymond Christian, a storyteller from Boone, told stories of growing up in North Carolina, about how he helped his mom, illiterate and poor, fill out a form for social security. He told her where to put her name, where to sign. “You will never know what it’s like to be ignorant.” she told her young, impressionable son.
Christian told a story of how he was helped by a kind man, a white, rich man, wearing nice shoes and expensive cologne, when his dog was struck by a car. And how as he grew up, he had a thirst for learning and knowledge. One time, he stole the dictionary, the actual Webster’s Dictionary from the library, because he was so excited to read it.
“I ran straight for the open door. But instead, there was plexiglass,” he said as the audience laughed.
Christian’s life then took him on many adventures. He became a paratrooper, and then he went to college and law school. “I was telling everyone I was going to become a lawyer. Hey nice to meet you. I’m going to law school!”
Storyteller Cynthia Waxter also told stories from her own life, and ended her storytelling with a lesson to the audience.
“Dance in the rain, sing in the sunshine, and don’t ever miss an opportunity to enjoy life.”