IN-SITE-FUL JOURNEYS

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An In-site-ful Journey to an outdoor classroom

Shariee Calderone

It’s amazing what happens when you bring people outdoors and encourage them explore the beauty that’s around them. Although you might think that I am referring to nature walks, canoe trips, or picnics under an oak tree, in this case I’m referring to the energizing experience a group of early childhood directors and I recently had as we walked around and explored the wonderfully playful new Nature Explorium at the Mid Island Y JCC.

Mid Island YJCC

Our recent visit was the first in a series of four separate site visits this fall to innovative early childhood centers in the NY Metro area organized by my colleagues at The Jewish Education Project. The goal is to highlight a specific innovation AND the journey story of each of the program directors hosting the visit who have been involved. At the Mid Island Y early childhood center we learned how educators can take small steps and gain big rewards. How it doesn’t take a mountain to transform and utilize outdoor spaces to promote healthy behaviors. Outdoor classrooms vary in size but most provide hands-on opportunities for learning and skill development through nature-based inquiry and exploration. They encourage children to explore, learn about and appreciate the natural world in a way that’s different from traditional classroom settings. I’m completely drawn to this idea because I believe we’re NOT currently doing enough to nurture an appreciation of nature in children today and if our early childhood centers can play even a small role, I think the whole community would benefit. That’s why this journey story was so important to hear about.

Everyone had the opportunity to “get dirty” and observe and mingle with groups of 3 and 4 year olds tromping out of their regular classrooms for their 30 minute blocks of time. The participants were fascinated by the interactions and the ease at which the children explored without all the prompting and oversight. Although the Mid Island Y calls the space an Outdoor Classroom or Outdoor Explorium, the term Outdoor Learning Environment is also becoming widely used as research continues to underscore the benefits of connecting children to nature which includes physical, social, emotional, cognitive and creative skills that blossom in these formative years.

“We used to climb this big mountain in an empty lot, which was probably a big rock, but it was so exciting for us”, said Vicki Perler, from Temple Beth-El Great Neck. While Elizabeth Kessler, who is part of the planning process to build an outdoor learning environment of her own at Community Synagogue in Port Washington, added “Every time I smell the fresh cut grass, it’s a huge sensory memory for me. I think we need to give children more opportunities to get out and play”. “The outdoor classroom seems more like a classroom that fits them, rather than trying to make them fit into other settings” suggested one participant after seeing how calm and “in the moment” they all seemed to be.

Stay tuned for more about my visit including getting to know the director behind the innovation and their lead nature specialist who works magic with all natural resources.

To see pictures from our visit to the Nature Explorium, click here.

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