Homeschooled kids explore nature with Encompass program

Jan 16, 2020

On January 13, five children bounded through the Friends Academy woods looking for animal footprints, scat, and a motion-activated wildlife camera.

But they weren’t just schoolkids running amok: These kids are part of the Academy’s Encompass program, which provides classes for students who normally learn at home.

The children came from all over the South Coast for their second weekly “Winter Hybrid” class, which takes place half indoors and half outdoors.

On this particular day they were exploring part of the school’s 65-acre campus looking for evidence of animal activity.

“Our topic this year is weather changes, and how it affects the animals that live at Friends Academy,” explained instructor Seth Garfield.

“Ultimately, we would love to talk about global climate change,” he added. 

Garfield taught science at the school in the 1990s before moving on to the Wheeler School in Providence, and now substitute teaches at Friends when he gets time away from his oyster farm in Cuttyhunk.

“I used to teach Troy’s mother back in the day,” he said with a smile, indicating one of the kids in front of him. “I’ve been doing it long enough now that I’m teaching the next generation, which is fun.”

Last week the kids started off learning about hibernation and weather. 

On Monday they reviewed everything they learned and drew a poster of the four seasons before bundling up into their winter gear to check the wildlife camera they had set up the previous week.

The eight-week class gets the children outside rain or shine. 

Six-year-old Scarlett Letendre said that she liked being outside “half and half.” 

“I like to stay inside,” she said with a laugh. “Because I like to play games!”

The kids ran to the camera, then looked for footprints in the mud while Garfield loaded the photos onto his laptop. They saw images of people walking the trails as well as two deer and one shot of what looked like a fox or a coyote.

After putting the first camera back up and setting up another one near a stream, the class examined some scat, or animal droppings, that they found on the forest floor.

Garfield dug into it with his pocket knife to show the kids the matted fur, seeds, and berries within. 

“Is this from a carnivore, an herbivore, or an omnivore?” he asked.

“I’m a pescatarian,” offered six-year-old Nina Gouveia.

This is the third year of the Encompass program. 

“During the day we offer this hybrid model as well as arts and STEAM programming as enrichment for families that are homeschooling, because everybody does it a different way,” explained the program’s founding director Elizabeth Gouveia, who is also Nina’s mother. 

The program has classes and activities three days a week for children from babies to 14-year-olds. They include story time, music, art, and yoga as well as nature-themed courses, among others.

“It’s really flexible,” Gouveia said. “And that’s why I think having this program for the last three years has been amazing for not just the homeschool community, but also Friends Academy. We really created this bridge between the different pockets of people learning.”

The kids in this particular winter hybrid class range in age from five to eight, which means their abilities vary.

But that didn’t seem to hold them back as they tramped through the woods.

“My favorite animals would be foxes and sharks,” said Litender. 

Charlotte Casey, 5, said she liked turtles best, while eight-year-old Erik Kowalski said he liked looking for tadpoles in the vernal pool.

“Erik is one of our king polliwog hunters,” said Garfield. 

“I have a favorite dinosaur,” said six-year-old Troy Bortmess with a grin. “Utahraptor!”

This article has been updated to correct two of the children’s last names.