Involving Children in Our World
Outdoor Learning includes the discovery, learning about and connecting to our natural world. Getting students outdoors, even just for 30 minutes, and engaged in environmental activities offers many benefits. This is true during the pandemic and beyond.
When I first started teaching about 13 years ago, I worked for a central city Milwaukee public school. Being a Montessori public school, our students had a slight advantage over many of their neighborhood peers. Connecting to the outdoors and the surrounding communities was already built into their learning curriculum.
Connecting Children to Their Community
Despite being located in a not so safe neighborhood, we had safe outdoor options around us. King Park was just across the street to the east.
It provided a playground, a sports area and lots of beautiful green space. This space is also the location of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center.
Don’t ever think your child is too old for a climbing structure! Now and again, I’ve taken my classes out to the tot lot and have watched them transform. They swung on the monkey bars, played squealing games of tag, ran back and forth, up and down and around the playground structure.
A fellow Upper Elementary teacher connected her students to a senior citizen home across the street to the west. Once a week they would walk as a class over to the home. Her students engaged with the residents in dancing sessions once a week. Through the sessions, they explored several styles of dancing together. My friend took many photographs during their visits; the smiles on both the adults and her student’s faces said it all.
A few blocks further to the west was a wonderful resource called Alice’s Garden Urban Farm. It was named in honor of Alice Meade-Taylor, a former Executive Director of Milwaukee County Extension. Alice’s dream was to develop a neighborhood gardening program for children and their families. Her goal was to reclaim and celebrate food traditions and the cultural arts through urban agriculture.
Overtime, I was deeply saddened to learn that so many other children within our community couldn’t spend more time outdoors enjoying their natural environment. For instance, Lake Michigan was only a few miles from their homes. Yet, many kids had never seen it before. Even more, some didn’t know it existed. Unfortunately, it is safer for some children to reside indoors.
Three Ways to Utilize Outdoor Learning
Outdoor learning is an ideal way to involve children in their world. It offers an alternate perspective. The outdoor classroom offers free thinking, innovation, and symbolic play – a gateway into their imaginations.
Outdoor learning should incorporate both unstructured time and learning. This will empower children to investigate, experiment, and devise new ideas through challenges and exploratory play. Below are three ways I utilize the great outdoors for learning.
1. What is Urban Agriculture?
As luck would have it, there is another Alice. In 1995, Alice Waters began a similar community project to Alice’s Gardens but on the west coast. It is called: The Edible Schoolyard. Her undertaking combined Water’s experiences as a trained Montessori teacher, a political activist, a talented chef, and champion of sustainable agriculture.
Her vision is grounded in this key principle: Children deserve to be nurtured in body and mind, shown they are valued and treated with dignity. Over the years, Alice was able to connect her school’s one-acre teaching garden and kitchen classroom to the science and humanities curricula taught to all students.
The Milwaukee school I currently teach at is so lucky in many ways. We have a greenhouse built right into our playground! Historically, it has been mostly utilized by our adolescent program. Over the years, they have partaken in many different local projects via the greenhouse. This includes raising fish and growing various types of produce to be sold to local businesses. The students manage most aspects associated to the endeavor.
2. What is a Nature Walk?
Nature walks offer opportunities for connecting language, science, history and math to classroom lessons. It also allows time for unstructured play and free exploration. In addition to practicing grace and courtesy, students observe their surroundings and explore the organic materials from the environment.
For instance, this has always been an obvious way for me to connect botany work to our natural surroundings. At my current school, we are very lucky to be located only a few blocks away from Lake Michigan. To the south is a beautiful and historical wooded area named the Seminary Woods.
My favorite botany adventure connects to the Function and Classification of the Leaf. In the classroom, I give a few initial lessons on leaves and show students some different examples from books and from what I’ve collected.
Afterwards, we continue our investigation of leaves by heading to the woods. Students then collect their own leaf samples. The history of the Seminary Woods and its surroundings is rich with stories to be shared along the walk! Botany Nomenclature is an easy way to link language study to the work as well.
Of course, it is best practice to review expectations before heading out. Walking respectfully in a line of 30 can take some practice! I always remind the students to stay as quiet as they can in residential areas, stay off of other people’s grass and to respect nature. Poking your brother with a stick is very different than poking your friends in a big group on a nature walk.
The best part? The cost is free.
3. What is a Going Out?
Research resources available in our classroom are deliberately restricted. Students need to leave our classroom and our school to discover more about the subjects they are interested in.
This ‘Going Out’ is the Montessori term for off-campus excursions taken by small groups of children to visit a variety of things: Museums, parks, galleries, stores and other businesses, libraries, non-profit organizations, places of worship, zoos, historical sites, just to name a few. When there, subject-matter experts can be found, or hands-on experiences can be had.
A ‘Going Out’ is initiated, planned, organized, and carried out by the students themselves. This is a spontaneous extension of studies or projects they are pursuing in the classroom. Dr. Montessori was adamant about the importance of developing the children’s intellectual knowledge, their ‘real world’ social skills and self-reliance at the same time. One way to do this is through these excursions into the larger world outside of school.
In my classroom, chaperons for ‘Going Out’ are chosen and contacted by the children from a list of parents who are expected to closely monitor and guard the children’s physical and emotional safety.
However, it’s important that the adult does NOT usurp the responsibilities and roles that are properly the children’s to learn and practice. Children plan their routes and take the city bus for their outings. They bring their own money and pay for themselves.
Children also write their own permission slip for a ‘Going Out’ and ask their parents, their principal and their teacher for permission to leave the building.
When children return, they are encouraged to write about what they learned. They present it to their class along with the research that prompted the ‘Going Out.’ Children are enriched by their ‘Going Out’ experiences.
Remember to Always Dress for the Weather!
Whether alone with caregivers, in a small learning pod or part of a bigger classroom of kids, comfort is an essential component to successful outdoor education. Appropriate clothing and footwear for the elements is a must: Dry socks, galoshes or winter boots, coats, gloves, and hats. Always check and dress for the weather. Don’t let your tweenager wear her flip flops to school. You never know when an opportunity for outdoor learning will present itself!
The environment of the elementary class is not confined to the school building.
Inspiring a natural sense of wonder and curiosity will empower a child’s lifelong love of learning! Furthermore, it adds a dimension of enrichment that can’t be taught within the walls of the classroom.
Do you have more suggestions for outdoor learning? Please feel free to send me an email with your ideas and experiences at email@example.com.
Read More: The Unschooling Movement
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