Teacher, Cathy Boldger, stands in her outdoor classroom next to  sunflowers

For 26 school years now, Cathy Boldger has been teaching at Walworth Jt. School District #1 and spreading the joy of an Outdoor Classroom with her students in Junior Kindergarten and Kindergarten. The curriculum is a "play-based observation charged on children's learning," said Boldger.

"The Outdoor Classroom follows what is appropriate for children," she added. ""It always had play-based nature learning. It's so important to develop the whole child."

Hired here in 1997, the national program Safety Town was a program from a Department of Public Instruction grant. Safety Town is a huge community effort, with businesses contributing and Police Department and Fire Department partners, according to Boldger.

A tree was adopted during Boldger's early years at Walworth.

"I knew it (the tree) was important - to see nature through the seasons," said Boldger, now teaching Junior Kindergarten on a "loop" school -year basis . "We buried pets under the tree, and had wishes under the tree. It was like our 'go-to' place. It was famously known as 'The Kindergarten Tree.'"

Boldger, a 1977 Human Biology graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has been teaching for 44 years, including  being a student teacher at Fort Howard Elementary and  then with a Green Bay preschool. Growing up on a farm in Blanchardville, she also taught preschool in Middleton.

"My dream was to teach in another country," said Boldger. So she taught in Mexico in an American school for three years and was named the English teacher of the year in her final year there. That was followed by a stint in Houston, Texas, where a four-year-old kindergarten program was started. "I'm pretty specialized in Early Childhood (education)."

When Boldger came to this area, she had young children, so she was a substitute teacher. Then she had a learning assistant grant from the DPI for Big Foot area schools for developing programs for young children from 1992-95. Boldger and her committee helped run Village Fest for 10 years. It included many agencies, including Scouts, dancing, Rotary and Lions Club.

In 2003, it was the grand finale. TV personality Fred Rogers had just died and David Newell from the show spent three days here, via the public relations department of Fred Rogers Productions. All of the classes rode a trolley in Walworth. Hedda Sharapan, the assistant director and associate producer of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, also attended. A person in the clergy knew Mr. Rogers.

"It was a fabulous day," said Boldger. She said they created a cardboard trolly that a class used to go around the school delivering treats.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, Boldger said that, at a school board meeting, it was "recommended children to be outside as much as possible." Tents were donated.

"I knew how important nature-based learning was. We had money to keep us safe inside; it started with a tent," said Boldger. "So many in the community collected things - tires, a sandbox, spools, money and Pierce's (Farm) every year gave bales of straw."

She said the "silver lining" of COVID-19 was the "opportunity to have an outdoor classroom. Administrators and parents loved it. We learned so much beyond expectations." The 4K class was the first class after COVID-19, so now as first graders, they are in their third year of outdoor classes. Next school year, without looping, will be a new group of Junior Kindergartners for Boldger.

"The children have become such nature advocates and they are now scientists - of kindness, nurturing and embracing the sense of wonder," said Boldger.  

East School in Jefferson sent personnel who loved seeing the Outdoor Classroom and pitched it there. It was awarded a grant.  "It was modeled after my Outdoor Classroom," said a proud Boldger. East was represented by Carrie Jonas, who used to teach at Walworth, and Dana Lutenburg.