Local school bringing learning to the farm

Stepping Stones Montessori School River Ridge Farm, Ada Township
Stepping Stones Montessori School students at River Ridge Farm in Ada Township. (Nov. 14, 2017)

ADA TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — A Grand Rapids school will open a new middle school in the fall, taking students out of the city and putting them on a farm.

“Farm school, for us, is a bit of a dream,” said Elizabeth Topliffe, who leads Stepping Stones Montessori School off College Avenue NE near Leonard Avenue.

The dream is coming true.

Parents of former students offered up a 100-acre piece of property called River Ridge Farm off Pettis Avenue in Ada Township to be home to Stepping Stones’ new farm-based middle school.

Stepping Stones Montessori School River Ridge Farm, Ada Township
Photo: River Ridge Farm in Ada Township. (Nov. 14, 2017)

“(Teaching model creator Dr. Maria) Montessori dreamed of having farms as a place for adolescents. And we know that’s a time of a second growth spurt in the brain, so it’s not just the bodies of these kids growing, it’s their brains,” Topliffe said.

The farm school will start out small next fall with only 10 students and, like Montessori preached, watch how the children grow and learn.

Topliffe said Stepping Stones leaders visited other farm-based school across the country to see how it’s being done.

“Take their lessons, their science, apply it to raising chickens, in the garden and to take things like physics to putting up structures and learning about chemistry that happens in a compost heap,” Topliffe said. “All of that, to have it hands-on is huge.”

“I think it’s pretty awesome,” 11-year-old Caroline Chardoul said of the farm-based learning.

“You get to come and you still get to learn what normal schools would teach you but you also get to learn how to take care of our garden, different animals like the chickens,” 11-year-old Harper Davis added.

They were part of the sixth-grade class that visited River Ridge Farm Tuesday. Students have been going to the farm for five weeks, planting garlic and rye so they’ll be well on their way to a garden next spring.

“You can see their faces. There’s nothing like being out here as opposed to being back in the classroom. It really keeps them excited and energized,” Topliffe said.

Classmate Drew Shier said he doesn’t know yet if he will attend the farm middle school next fall, but he he’s very interested in it.

“I think more freedoms, more chances to experience it rather than look at it in pictures and books,” Drew said.

Leaders say they’ll probably start out with a portable classroom on the farm and decide later what buildings may be added based on what they find themselves needing.