Bringing the Classroom Outside Creates a Lasting Impression

WOLF Archery Photo

Students line up for archery class, one of the many outdoor activities included in the program at Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility in Springfield, Missouri.

Imagine a school that allows students to canoe down a river, hold a bird of prey, and rappel down a cliff wall, among numerous other fun and exciting outdoor activities, for an entire school year. This one-of-a-kind opportunity is available through the WOLF (Wonders of the Ozarks Learning Facility) program, the product of a successful public-private partnership between the Springfield, Missouri public school system, Bass Pro Shops, and the Wonders of Wildlife Museum. And the best part about it is it’s free.

The yearlong school is open to 46 fifth-graders (23 boys and 23 girls) who are chosen from throughout the district by lottery system. They come from an economically and culturally diverse population of students, and include children from rural, urban, Title I, and high-need schools. It is not a gifted program and there are no academic requirements for acceptance.

Students initially learn about conserving local ecosystems in the classroom, and then experience those lessons firsthand by exploring the natural wonders of the Ozark region. By seamlessly blending a traditional 5th grade curriculum into a hands-on, place-based education, the school has successfully created a bridge between the students and the outdoors. “We still teach them everything, but with a nature angle,” says Sue Dyle, a teacher at the school.

It is an optimal way to reach a generation of youth that has become increasingly disconnected from the natural world. “The WOLF program changes the dynamics of how you learn, what you learn, and why you learn,” says Martin MacDonald, Director of Conservation for Bass Pro Shops.

While no one can argue WOLF is a welcome break from the confines of the traditional classroom setting, how effective is it from an academic perspective? According to Dyle, the school continues to see high marks from all its students in both classroom and statewide assessment tests. Students really develop a passion for learning, she says. But it is the intangibles such as improved self-confidence, teamwork, and an increased understanding of the environment that really set the program apart.

For former student Brock Metcalf, WOLF taught him things he never would have dreamed of learning in his previous school.  A self-avowed animal lover, he discovered creatures he never knew existed and got to handle rescued animals such as a barn owl he skillfully displayed during a recent tour. His most valuable takeaway: be respectful. An important lesson continually reinforced throughout the program, both inside and outside the classroom.

Patrick Kerr is the Region VII Director of Communications and Outreach in the U.S. Department of Education’s Kansas City office.

15 Comments

  1. How fortunate we are in Springfield for our children to have this opportunity! Thank you for highlighting this special program and possibly opening the doors for students in other communities to experience alternative learning!

  2. It’s an amazing school with top teachers and staff! We count our blessings everyday that our daughter is apart of something so unique. It has already begun to help her grown into a more responsible, caring, curious, adventurous, respectful and motivated individual. ALL learning should be woven together like WOLF has created. Sitting in a traditional school class setting is not how anyone learns best. It’s by doing and experiencing in relationship with the book learning that we grow and truly become educated. WAY TO GO WOLF!

  3. WOLF is such a wonderful program for my daughter. I am amazed at everything she gets to do this year! She loves going to school each day. I wish WOLF was around when I was a kid. Thank you!

  4. What a blessing it has been to have our son participate in the WOLF program. The academic growth and increased confidence we have seen during his 5th grade school year has been remarkable. He will certainly be reaping the benefits of this opportunity for the rest of his life.

  5. Thank you for featuring the WOLF program. Springfield is lucky to have administrators, teachers & sponsors who invest so much in our children. My child benefited in so many ways from this program. His desire to be at school coupled with the teaching curriculum opened up so many learning experiences. Children (and adults) try harder and do better at things that they want to do over things they are required to do. The students WANT to be at WOLF – they want to experience nature, want to learn the background, history, and connection of the little things to understand the big picture. WOLF is able to pull all of that together and apply the teaching to all curriculums, not just science and nature but also to math, reading comprehension, writing, and social studies. The problem solving skills they learn from classroom and field experiences benefit the children in all areas of their learning. My son learned so much while in WOLF, but more importantly he developed a passion for learning – learning in the classroom & in the world around him.

  6. The Watershed Committee of the Ozarks loves working with the students of the WOLF program. The Watershed Center provides them with a wonderful opportunity to learn in an outdoor setting!

  7. This is a wonderful program. Thanks for featuring it. My daughter is very engaged this year and is learning a lot.

  8. I LOVE this experience for kids. I just sent a copy to my two science colleagues who will be inspired and jealous. Thanks for being innovated and RIGHT.

  9. We are extremely lucky in Springfield to have a schools system, superintendent, and school board willing to back a variety of educational alternatives for parents and children to pursue as learning opportunities from gifted programs to WOLF. My son is so excited to go to school everyday and to be experiencing the world as he learns about it. It is so true that not everyone learns the same way, and so great that Springfield offers a lot of learning choices. Thanks for highligting the WOLF program. Maybe some other schools around the nation will take an educational chance like this in the future.

  10. Springfield should be extremely proud of this program. Partners like Bass Pro, Wonders of Wildlife, Missouri Department of Conservation, Missouri State Parks, and others are key in making this program successful. Huge thanks to everyone involved! The power of choice and nature is amazing.

  11. Thank you for highlighting WOLF! This program has my fifth grader excited to go to school everyday. She is gaining a love of learning and the natural world that will be with her forever. My wish is that this program, or others like it, would be available to everyone.

  12. I’m so proud that my daughter is involved in this program, and I am happy that you got to see this program in person. What an amazing educational experience!

  13. As a Springfield native, current resident, and parent of SPS students I couldn’t be more proud of our school system and the WOLF program. Kudos to SPS! Keep up the great work!

  14. Attending this school was an incredible experience for my son. The explosion of learning that took place that year was very fun to watch. He shared new things with our whole family. We are lucky to have all these community partners working together to make the WOLF School possible.

    You mentioned that it is not a gifted school. I think it’s better than a gifted school because the curriculum holds the attention of all the students, gifted students included. Because the program requires students have good behavior, they are also given more autonomy than in traditional classrooms, and are able to more deeply explore the topics they are interested in. Giving the students some control over what they learn makes their natural passion for learning incredibly clear. I could go on for days about the strengths of the WOLF School. It’s an all-around win.

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