My 5th grader attends Opal School, a K-grade 5 Portland Public Schools charter school at the Portland Children’s Museum. The school takes full advantage of its setting in Washington Park to access and experience the outdoors, giving the students time to breathe fresh air, feel the falling rain, get muddy, climb trees, hike, and run up and down grassy slopes.
They study and play in the areas immediately outside the school, but also within Hoyt Arboretum. These years are a priceless gift that nurtures the students’ connection with the natural world in an age of “nature-deficit syndrome.” I could go on and on about the incredible work that goes on at this school, but read their blog if you want to know more. The subject of this post is a special tree.
I don’t know the story of how this tree acquired the name “Zoom.” It had been named before my children were enrolled. Zoom is a large, multi-trunk western red-cedar, Thuja plicata, located outside the Children’s Museum. It is perfect for climbing. My son fully explored the spreading lower limbs from the age of 3 onward. Older children climb to the very top.
Climbing trees aren’t hard to find, but this tree offers more than that. The lowest hanging foliage makes a curtain and ducking underneath one enters a new place — the shade is cooling, sounds are filtered out, outside views are screened — you’re not standing at the base of Zoom, you are within Zoom.
There is space here for an entire classroom of children to all explore and experience together. There is something so unique about this — I think of most school yards with the hot sun baking down on flat asphalt surfaces and play equipment which suggests limited options, providing for few to use at a given time. Zoom invites all to experience at each one’s level of comfort or inspiration — playing under, around, up a little, or way up high. Alone, with a buddy, with your entire class. What does it feel like to be uncertain and worried about finding one’s way down? To have one’s feet touch the ground again, having climbed just a little bit higher than the day before?
How fitting that Zoom exists in such proximity to a school which values multisensory and experiential learning. I have to believe that children with teachers who know the value of touching, climbing, loving a tree as a friend will grow into adults who know that living in relationship to trees is essential to our well-being.