I have to admit that I’m usually skeptical when I hear that a preschool has built an outdoor classroom in record time. Why? On the one hand it’s because schools in general are notoriously slow to change. And two, because I know what it takes to create “real change” in organizations. And lets be truthful, changing a school’s educational philosophy – including where it takes place – probably ranks on top of the difficulty scale. Well, not always it appears! And we can look to Westchester Reform Temple Early Childhood Temple (WRT) as evidence that it can be achieved.
So here’s the timeline:
In December of 2013 an active WRT congregant and preschool parent, Dara Gruenberg, said she wanted to create an outdoor classroom. By July it was built. That’s roughly 7 months!
What I love best about this story is Susan Tolchin’s ability to pull all the pieces together to make this work. In part that meant supporting (and trusting) Dara to put ideas into action and work with the specialists she needed to work with to get things done. Susan is the ECC Director at WRT and has seen an amazing turnaround in school enrollment due to a number of important changes that have taken place in the past few years. But one can definitely point to the beautiful new outdoor classroom, the Gan Outdoor Classroom, as one key ingredient in the turn around.
Susan and Dara put together a committee of 8-10 people who could weigh in and help get the board approvals that were needed to occupy a new part of the property, build a suitable fence, and create signage that would compliment the building. Contributing members of the committee included synagogue clergy, board members, parents and school staff. Since Dara is an educator she knew the value outdoor classrooms can bring to the school, staff and of course the children, and worked to incorporate the equipment and elements that contribute to good design and usage. The features of their outdoor classroom include – stepping stones, sustainable ground covers, sturdy construction for chairs and platforms, leftover tree stumps (for climbing and as tables), a wood xylophone, cabinets with smaller messy materials, and a garbage can (I think the first I’ve noticed in an outdoor classroom).
Nothing so out of the ordinary you might think. But it is. It’s also a Jewish space.
They’ve intentionally incorporated signage they think is an important marker for the value they place on children’s learning and doing. All of the signs are verbs and each is written in English and Hebrew. They are placed around the perimeter of the classroom and face both inwards and outwards. They are as much for the congregants who pass by on their way into the temple as they are for the staff and parents who spend time inside the space. Words such as CLIMB, PERFORM, CONNECT, EXPLORE, DISCOVER, etc.
They’ve also created a Jewish curriculum titled JEWEL (Jewish Educational Wisdom, Experience and Leadership) to support the staff in using the space through a Jewish lens. It is specifically for the Outdoor Classroom and it includes lesson ideas and activities on topics like Shabbat and Welcoming Guests (Hachnasat Orhim). A picture from one of the early drafts is below.
Susan Tolchin becomes a kid when she shows you around the Gan Outdoor Classroom. It isn’t enough that she says she has colorful scarfs the children can use in the dramatic area, we all grab scarfs and play around. We rummage through the cabinets, play music, sit in the “too small” chairs (I felt like Goldilocks) and we take out the tubing that becomes the experiment with water. It’s fun and it’s an important factor in the success that WRT is seeing. Pride and joy shines through. And I can only imagine the smile on the faces of the older congregants whose path runs right alongside the park (coincidental?), and the jealousy of parents who’s children came before the Gan Outdoor Classroom.
For more information about WRT’s new space please contact Sue Tolchin at firstname.lastname@example.org