A large wooden sign that says “Yew Here” greets visitors as they drive into the Yew Mountain Center. Nestled in the woods of Pocahontas County, West Virginia, the property for years operated as a farm. A few years ago, a group of community members sought to repurpose the land to create a place for outdoor education.
“It was really a neighborhood effort to turn this property into something that would preserve the land and also serve the community,” said Erica Marks, the center’s director.
Marks explained that when the farm property came up for sale, a group of neighbors wanted to buy it but the price was out of their range. A third party purchased the land and leased it back to the group to use for educational outreach.
Three years ago, the Yew Mountain Center opened its doors. The nonprofit creates educational experiences for groups of children and adults in a natural setting.
During a recent visit, students from the kindergarten class at Marlinton Elementary ventured into the woods to see the story “The Gruffalo,” by Julia Donaldson, come to life.
In the story, a mouse fends for his life using his wits to survive. He has to outwit a snake, a fox and an owl. The kids took owl and snake-themed hikes and participated in a fox activity that included a game and craft making.
“I really like to just kind of step back a little bit and let the children explore and show interest in what they've been able to find out themselves in the woods and what they can do on their own,” Marks said.
Although these activities were created for young children, the science and natural elements weren’t simplified. The kindergarten students used microscopes to look at a snake skin, visited a pond to see frogs and even watched a volunteer dissect an owl pellet to learn what the owl had eaten.
Abigail, a thin, blonde-haired five-year-old enjoyed the microscope.
“I saw a spider web. It looked stringy like string that you would like tie stuff on,” she said.
For Marks, introducing kids to science in the natural world helps bring science to life.
“We’re listening in the forest. We're smelling things and by using microscopes, they're seeing this detail that they've never appreciated before,” she said. “These kids are 4 and 5 years old, and they're learning to use this pretty high-tech equipment.”
The volunteers at the Yew Mountain Center make these outdoor programs available to all the local schools in Pocahontas County at no charge and offer experiences appropriate to various age ranges. The program relies largely on donations and fundraising.
Marks said she prefers to offer programs like this early in the school year because it helps teachers understand how individual students learn.
“The outdoors are great because teachers and students and the family members that are here, they're interacting with the children in a different way than they do in the school and they can strengthen their relationships with the kids,” she said.
She explained that some students learn well in a traditional classroom. Others learn with worksheets and on the computer.
“I feel like this is a way for students who don't learn well that way to come out in nature and show that they're really good at a different way of learning,” Marks said.