What’s really taking place in your outdoor classroom?
If you are an educator in a preschool and you have an outdoor classroom, you know that there’s a tremendous amount of learning potential in that space. You see the children behave differently in those spaces. You see the children engaged for longer periods of time in those spaces. And you hear the children ask questions, generated by their own discovery, that you’ve never heard them ask before. But what exactly is taking place in those spaces, and when and how are the children learning?
That was the topic of the morning workshop I attended hosted by the Mid Island Y JCC this past Sunday, an absolutely beautiful day in the North East for the 25+ Jewish educators on Long Island who attended. Julie Rose, Educational Services Director from Nature Explore, was the facilitator and came from her home town in Nebraska to talk to educators from the Mid Island Y JCC – and from other Jewish preschools in our area, including Chai Tots Preschool in Dix Hills and North Shore Synagogue in Syosset. With the Explorium as our backdrop the stage was set to talk about the meaningful learning that takes place in outdoor classrooms. She was such an enthusiastic and knowledgeable presenter, I wish I could have stayed for the second workshop (link).
Julie believes the outdoor classroom is one of the best learning environments for children because it provides children with multiple “ways to be successful”. Children are naturally curious learners and do best when provided with ample opportunities to explore and examine the world around them. Some of the essential ingredients in the design of outdoor space include:
…an entry feature
…. a climbing area
… a nature art area
.. a gathering area
She also presented 10 Guiding Principles that make intentional outdoor spaces so special. This list includes using a variety of natural materials in the setting and delineating the space with plants, signs, and a variety of surfaces. But I was especially intrigued by the idea of designing with your particular region in mind. Living on LI this could mean adding grape vines to the garden, or having artifacts from the beach, such as shells and driftwood, available for children to explore or to decorate the space.
Two wonderful exercises were incorporated into the workshop:
A visual spatial exercise
For this exercise we walked through and around the Mid Island Y’s Explorium and took note of all the different spaces and objects that we could see. Back inside we were asked to draw a map that would include at least 5 of those spaces. Although the exercise seemed simple, Julie generated a fascinating conversation about how an exercise like that encourages acute observational skills and can support early literacy because children use their drawings to explain what they see and often use symbols to represent ideas and words. We also discussed how our visual special skills where enhanced by turning the 3 dimensional experience into a 2 dimensional picture. For visual special thinkers Julie says, “we want to allow them to be in nature every day” because this gives them an opportunity to engage in purposeful movements.
A group activity focused on skill development
For this exercise educators were asked to select one of three spaces outside and work collaboratively to create a representation of Wind, Rain, Thunder/Lightening, or the Life Cycle (like that of a butterfly or a plant). This was NOT an easy exercise, but I have to say probably the most imaginative and playful for everyone involved. As you can see by the pictures below… everyone was full on engaged and invested in the task.
- In the block area, educators created a rendering of a plant’s life cycle (row 1)
- In the music and movement area educators sang and drummed to the song, “Knock on Wood” (it’s like thunder, it’s like lightening, the way you love me is frightening!) (row 2);
- And in the nature art area educators created a butterfly life cycle out of an assortment of natural materials like pine cones, seed pods, and stones (row 3).
After each presentation the educators brainstormed a list of skills enhanced through each of the exercises. This list was not slight in the least:
- Problem solving
- Peer modeling
- Leadership opportunities
- Fine motor skills
- Visual analogy
It was thrilling to see the school that kicked off last year’s In-site-ful Journeys site visits bring this exceptional resource to the educational staff at the Mid Island Y – and to members of the Outdoor Community of Practice. Rhya Gerrold, Director of the school, and Cara Jeshiva, the Nature Educator, are both committed and talented professionals who continue to model quality nature education for children and families in a Jewish setting.
Nature Explore offers educators a host of resources. Many can be found on the Nature Explore website including articles, books, and free downloadable activity materials you can use with families from their Families Club.