DAVIDSON — Youngster Elizabeth Autrey described it as being like a beaver building a dam. Student Gracie McIntyre began to understand why a proper haven is a means of survival.

The girls were collaborating with the other 24 students at Davidson Green School on Jan. 30 to build a life-size shelter using materials found in the wooded yard. The challenge — building a durable, waterproof and warm shelter in a safe place using only natural items.

“For some people, this would be like recess,” Autrey said, of traipsing around in galoshes to pick up sticks for construction, “but we are learning the whole time.”

The private school for kindergarten through fourth-graders centers around sustainability and teaching through hands-on experiences in nature. It opened last fall with a science, technology, math and engineering focus.

“It’s hands-on learning with math, reading, writing and world culture all based around a project,” Co-founder Jennifer Jakubecy said, adding there is an emphasis on being outside for science lessons.

Sustainability and Science Coordinator and school Co-founder Kathleen McIntyre taught students how people in different cultures build homes based on surroundings like straw huts or yurts made from animal skin. She had the children design what they thought the shelter should be made of before they worked together to build it.

Student Harrison Coffey suggested using wood and vine to make a door to block the wind. Autrey added putting leaves in between the sticks for insulation.

Kathleen McIntyre said when they are finished, they will go out in the rain to see if the shelter works. If it doesn’t, like engineers, they will redesign their plan. During the project, students write about the progress that’s being made, their involvement and what steps they think need to be taken next.

Kathleen McIntire said it’s a way to take an abstract idea and make real life experiences.

“Some of our projects are problem-based learning, where we start with a question and don’t know where we’ll end up,” Jakubecy added. “Others are project-based where we know what the end result should be like creating a garden, but it’s learning about how to get there.”

Much of the work is done in small groups as well as independently. Kathleen McIntrye said it allows for more one-on-one learning with teachers to ask questions, plus share ideas.

Students are not grouped by grade or age, but rather need. Some have more structure and work extra with the teachers, while others are self-regulated and can handle completing their assignments more independently.

But they come together as a whole for activitiess like yoga in the mornings to get focused or a weekly school meeting for students to speak their mind and brainstorm ways to make the school better.