University City

Cedarwood classroom as big as great outdoors

From within the perimeter of a long and winding bamboo fence, young voices laugh, talk and cheer.

Little feet trample across a dense floor thick with autumn's leftover leaves and acorns.

Every once in a while, the laughter and chatter stop, and a sentence is spoken, its words sliding up the scale in a soft and high octave to form a question.

These are the sounds of youngsters learning at Cedarwood Academy, a progressive school off Mallard Creek Road in University City. There, children spend their days outside with the world's oldest and wisest teacher, Mother Nature.

Opened in September 2010 by director Irena Ly, Cedarwood Academy is the only local school of its kind to hold class outdoors year-round.

Instead of sitting in a classroom building learning math and science in measured doses, students pick up the lessons hidden in nature at their own pace, when they become interested.

"It comes from 'I want to know,' instead of, 'I have to know,' " said Ly, who holds a master's degree in education and has served as director of progressive preschools in the past. "We don't have rewards other than the knowledge itself, and the desire to learn something."

Although traditional ways of learning are not wrong, said Ly, they're not right for everyone. She remembers when she was a child growing up in Russia, how quickly her own excitement to begin school wavered under the school's style of instruction and mundane routine.

"The first day I wanted to go there so much," she said. "The second day, I did not like it anymore."

At Cedarwood Academy, the classroom ceiling is the sky. Its floor is the soil, and students' boundaries for learning are dictated only by what nature has to teach them that day.

Frozen icicles in winter provide a lesson in science. The frogs that settle into the fence's hollow bamboo pipes in summer become fodder for study, too.

The theory is that students can learn everything from nature, and that they learn best when they themselves become interested in the subject, not when a teacher tells them it's time to hear about it.

"It's very child-centered, and when a child is interested in something, whether it's frogs or woodworking, then we kind of just guide them to learn what they need to know," said Kristen Oliver, whose son, Andrew, 6, and daughter, Tessa, 4, have attended the school since its opening.

Oliver and other parents often volunteer at the school to help Ly and the other teacher on staff.

"We're not imposing a curriculum that they have to follow," she said. "The curriculum comes through nature and through what they are drawn to. When they are interested, that's when they learn."

Twelve children ages 3 to 17 attend the school, which operates 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. North Carolina regulations for a school, which require a certain square footage of indoor facility, have kept the Cedar Academy from expanding its hours and enrollment until now.

For the 2012-13 school year, Cedarwood Academy has raised enough money to rent a modular classroom for students to go into in cases of extreme weather. Next fall, students will also have an opportunity to attend morning and afternoon programs in health, fitness and the arts.

"It's such a welcoming place," said Rikki Wilson, 17, a homeschooled student who began attending the school this year after several grades in public school. "I wasn't really used to that, because in high school you have to earn your place and get in a clique."

Wilson often helps the younger children with lessons, sometimes acting out verbs and nouns from cue cards a teacher has given him. The children, who sit on sawed-off stumps in front of him, jump as they try to guess each new word he presents in charades.

Oliver said the excitement she sees in her own children when they learn something new is proof the school has hit upon success.

"The first day my kids came, they just ran willingly from the car, and it's been like that every single day."