Natural Learning

Elementary educators John Duhon, Jenny Dunning and Risa Wilkins grew up in different places and a decade apart, but they had something in common. Each grew up with creeks, pastures and an outside world to explore, which led to endless discoveries of nature, imagination and self. They believe such unstructured time allowed for more creative play and problem solving.

As educators, they wanted to use this concept in the classroom “to honor the diverse ways in which a child learns.” After teaching in public and private schools for many years, Dunning, Wilkins and Duhon co-founded Keystone Adventure School and Farm.

Located at the northwest corner of Danforth and Western, the school sits on 16 lush, green acres with a pond and a creek meandering through the property. It is also home to a menagerie of animals, including horses, ducks, goats, dogs, chickens and doves.

“The kids love the animals,” said John Duhon, co-director of the school. On a typical day, students begin their day in the pasture where they groom or feed the animals, gather eggs or even help build pens.

“Most schools start their students out in a quiet atmosphere,” he said. “We like to give them a little activity first.”
After taking care of the animals, students move to the school building where they sing together then go to their classrooms for academic studies. However, even the classes are non-traditional, with multi-age classrooms where children study in a “project-oriented” atmosphere.

The instructors said they believe their style of teaching helps students to become “creative, self-starters and independent learners.”

The goal of Keystone Adventure School and Farm is to educate the whole child in a way that involves children in the design and implementation of the learning process. The school’s philosophy states that “children learn best when they are directors and active participators in their own learning.” Classrooms are multi-age and multi-level, providing students the benefit of working side by side on projects with children outside their own grade level.

“We want them to do more that just memorize and regurgitate facts,” Duhon said. “We want them to apply their knowledge. To think, not just answer.”

Duhon said students are always free to give ideas concerning the direction of study for a class. “This helps the teacher and gives the children ownership in what they do,” he said. Part of their success lies in their “classrooms without walls” mentality, which refers to the “anytime availability of the entire campus to all teachers and students.”

In contrast to most schools, Keystone looks at each child as an individual. The focus of the curriculum is to present each child an individualized program based on his/her strengths with the implementation of a multitude of learning styles. “Many times when a child falls behind in class it is because he learns in a way that is different from the style the teacher is using,” Duhon said. At Keystone the teachers try to provide each student with their particular mode of learning.

Being a small school, with small classrooms, teachers interact freely with the students, giving them better insight into the needs of each child. They also offer opportunities to develop social skills in groups that meet together three afternoons a week.

“This is a family and everyone feels they are a contributing member,” Duhon said. “An older child might stop and tie the shoelace of a pre-schooler or help a younger child without being asked. Everyone works hard to see that everyone succeeds.”

Now in its second year, the school has an enrollment of 47 students, pre-kindergarten through seventh grade. Outside of the core curriculum, Keystone offers art, Spanish, PE, music, theater, cooking, sewing and woodworking, not to mention the outside nature experiences. The directors consider the outdoors to be one of their greatest teachers. “By caring for our horses and other animals, the children will learn self-confidence, self-reliance and go beyond themselves,” Duhon said. However, they also have a full network lab with 16 computers and classrooms that are fully equipped for teaching.

Keystone also offers a summer program where students focus on reading, math and “having a fun time.” Duhon said kids are “paid” to read books. “When they come to me I will intentionally shortchange them or give them too much change so they have to figure out how much money they need,” he said.

Summers provide a more relaxed environment, giving students extra time to work with the animals or to go biking, horseback riding or paddle around the pond in a boat.

To contact Keystone Adventure School and Farm, call 216-5400.

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