Red Bank's Forest Kindergarten the first program of its kind in Hamilton County Schools [photos]

McKenzie Weber, left, and Rose Lively run through a stream Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, during Forest Kindergarten class at Red Bank Elementary School.

Emptying rain boots full of creek water and writing in journals about butterflies spotted in the woods is just a regular part of the school day for 20 kindergartners at Red Bank Elementary.

For students in the Forest Kindergarten class, learning is associated with building homes out of sticks in the woods, collecting and identifying plants, and mud-painting the rocks lining the creek bed.

"The kids don't even always know they're learning," Principal Haley Brown said as she watched pupils splashing in the creek Thursday afternoon.

Red Bank's Forest Kindergarten, the first of its kind in Hamilton County Schools, is modeled after programs typically found in private schools with steep price tags.

The Forest Kindergarten kids spend a couple of hours a day inside a classroom, because they have to meet state academic standards. But hours of each class day are spent outside, learning through exploration and hands-on activities.

Brown and Forest Kindergarten teacher Samantha Eaton said the time outside isn't a setback for academics, as Eaton is always working to integrate learning and play.

Pointing to woods where students were building houses with sticks, Eaton said she plans to align the "neighborhood" the kids are creating with the social studies standards.

"It's all so connected," Eaton said.

Students seem to be making steady gains in literacy and writing because they spend so much time recording what they see outside, Eaton said. As the school year winds on, she said, students are becoming more brave and resilient, and she's even noticed their balance is getting better.

Brown said she appreciates how the 5-year-olds are learning to talk to each other and solve problems, adding that they also seem to have an easier time focusing inside the classroom.

The class is influencing Brown's view of what quality instruction looks like in other classes, and she's happy to see teachers from the school's five other kindergarten classes doing lessons outdoors and being innovative.

Eaton, who has been at the school for years, said she read a lot about elementary classes focused on the outdoors and became passionate about starting one at Red Bank Elementary.

"I wanted this opportunity for my students here," she said.

Since the program is new to the area, Brown wasn't sure how many parents would be interested. She was surprised when the parents of 42 children said they wanted their kids to be in the class. That was twice the number the pilot program could accommodate, forcing Brown to hold a lottery for the 20 available spots.

"It was really bittersweet," she said. "I'm glad the interest was there, but I hated having to turn kids away."

Brown said the school is considering expanding the program to upper grades, and maybe even adding more Forest Kindergarten classes.

During school Thursday, a group of boys had finished identifying the butterflies they caught in a net and began pulling ragweed out of the ground, because Eaton told them it can cause headaches and clearing it would make room for milkweed, which attracts monarch butterflies.

"This ragweed is bad," said Izaiah Lloyd, carrying a large stalk and looking at its roots. "It's just nasty."

Just 15 feet away, a group of girls were moving rocks in the creek, making little dams, and Colt Stohler-Pitts was dyeing water with berries.

"See, I put this berry in here," he said, pointing to a Tupperware container filled with water. "And then I shake it and it changes the color."

As soon as the water became a dark purple, Colt ran to show Eaton.

"Look what I made!" he exclaimed. "It would turn a different color if I used a plant."

Eaton, sitting on a small wooden bridge by the creek, asked Colt to explain why, which he did.

As the class filed back up the trail toward the school, Eaton asked them to identify what they saw.

"I see so many trees and animals I know," said Izaiah proudly.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.