Joyce Mucher didn't want her kindergarteners to do virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, so with some help from parents, she created an outdoor wonderland

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joyce mucher
Credit: Courtesy Joyce Mucher

The world locked down last year, but at Penryn Elementary School in Penryn, Calif., kindergarteners found refuge in the forest through teacher Joyce Mucher's vision of outdoor learning. 

Mucher's idea of taking children out of the classroom and into the outdoors has been percolating for most of her 34-year teaching career, but COVID-19 restrictions allowed her dream to become a reality. 

"Sometimes, it's a slow process to do anything that's new or different," Mucher tells PEOPLE. "So [the restrictions] became the opportunity to do things that in the past may not have been received as open-mindedly." 

Last year, when Mucher found out shortly before school was supposed to start that her kindergarteners would be doing all their schooling virtually, she wanted to find a better solution.

"Kindergarten is supposed to be magical," an emotional Mucher says.  "I fear for them in this time right now. So as long as I'm making it magical, I'm doing what I'm here to do." 

She described her vision of being able to teach outside in a true "kindergarten", or "child's garden," like those used in Canada and Europe, and the parents were solidly on board with the plan. 

Parent Darcie Stratton's youngest son was in that kindergarten class, and Stratton said her older childrens' experience with Mucher as a teacher made her trust Mucher's vision completely.

"We came to Penryn because of Mrs. Mucher. She's probably one of the most amazing teachers I know, and I was a 7th grade teacher," Stratton, 42, tells PEOPLE. "When she said she had this vision of the forest school, we were all for it." 

joyce mucher
Credit: Courtesy Joyce Mucher

The rural K-through 8 school, which is just north of Sacramento, had a lovely spot nearby just ready to be turned into an elfin forest. 

Parents held a work party, coming with weed whackers, shovels and a tractor, to clear out the wooded area with a creek, blackberry brambles and trees. The children all pitched in. 

One parent built a small stage for the children to use for play and performances. Another donated stumps for sitting. Another made an outdoor dry erase board that closed up so it was protected from the weather. 

Suddenly, it was more than just an area for kindergarteners. It became a place for children in all grades to use. 

"It just turned into a very beautiful, versatile space," Mucher, who will be retiring after this school year, says. "Everything I thought could happen with it happened." 

By taking the children out of the classroom, Mucher watched as they blossomed in their ability to communicate, which resulted in less conflict. 

"Being outside showed them in a different light than what we see them in the classroom," Mucher says. "They were able to problem solve and use skills that go beyond pencil and paper." 

She says she allowed the children to figure out on their own how to get over the creek, build a mud kitchen and navigate the rainy days. 

Penryn is a Writer's Workshop school, so students used the area to work on their pieces. By the end of the last school year, the fourth-grade students panned for gold in the creek as part of their California history studies. Fifth-graders, who were taught to play the ukulele, did a performance on the stage.

joyce mucher
Credit: Courtesy Joyce Mucher

It makes Mucher happy to see her dreams come to life, and hopes other teachers might find the courage to be more innovative.  

"I have the luxury of being at the end of my career," Mucher, 58, says. "And so, I feel I can be brave and courageous, and make choices that in the beginning of my career, I might not have been ready to make."

Her favorite moment was when the children celebrated a classmate's birthday by putting a plank between two stumps for seating, digging mud from the creek and making pies. 

"They decorated them with acorns and put sticks in them for candles and sang 'Happy Birthday'," Mucher says. 

Stratton says the forest classroom was a lifesaver during everything that's been going on in the last year. 

"My son, who was a kindergartener, could get muddy and dirty and go explore," she says. "It brought an excitement to learning that you don't get sitting in a chair for hours." 

This coming year promises even more outdoor activities. 

"It's evolving so we are getting more seating and more outdoor blankets for them to sprawl out on," Stratton says. "The kids feel good out there and so do the teachers. It's a healthier way to learn and is has become a space of magic."