Monday, May 8, 2017

Outdoor explorations are the best education

By Beth Sullivan
Tuesday dawned quite cool and gray, foggy, mist in the air, and windy. Not a real inspiring day to go outside for any length of time. But Mrs. N’s class of first graders was not daunted at all. Due to almost a school year of practice, each student had a bag of gear including rain coat, rain pants, and boots. They also were prepared to get wet, so each child had a bag of clean dry clothes. Their backpacks contained their paperwork on a clipboard, and their lunch and a drink. I remember how hard it was trying to get my own two children ready for an outdoor adventure, never mind an entire class of very active and excited 6 year olds. They were going to the POND.
The outdoor classroom.

Rain or shine classroom

I was thrilled to be part of this adventure. I had worked with this school and first grade team for more than 20 years, doing habitat classes and outdoor field trips. The teachers were absolutely amazing in the way they incorporated the habitat elements and outdoor discoveries into all areas of their curriculum: writing, reading, art, math, and science. This year Mrs. N has taken this approach to a new level. Every Tuesday, rain or shine, the students go to their Outdoor Classroom in the woods on school property. She is assisted by another teacher, Mrs S, who was also part of the outdoor learning team for two decades. The children know the drill. Everyone cooperates. There was a wagon full of supplies, buckets to be carried, and even a portable commode and pop-up tent for privacy. This was serious business.
Deep in the woods, we listened to frogs, birds, and splashing. Everyone was wet and happy.

As we hiked the trail to the classroom area, we observed newly greening plants, leaves on trees, sounds in the woods, and bugs on the ground. They remembered things from the previous week and could make comparisons. When we reached the classroom, a circle of stumps set under a tarp, it was time to settle and listen. With some special songs, verbal and visual cues, and a few deep breaths, the children began to quiet. A story about a tadpole and a caterpillar brought some laughs, but also some insight about how things change in nature. They ate their lunch while listening to review of the plans of action. For a period they were allowed to roam freely in the general area, boundaries having been set early on, but they chose their routes, and explored on their own. No one got lost; no one got hurt. Do you remember that feeling of being free in the woods? I sure do.
The nets were taller than the students.

Vernal pools to explore

Since this was their first time working in the vernal pool, there was need for some special instructions. They would be in teams, with each pair sharing a long handled net (which could indeed be a danger in the hands of an exuberant, shorter, little person). When they were ready, we headed to the shoreline of the shallow woodland pond. At first there was hesitation: some were uncertain about their footing and depth in the water; some were a little concerned about what might be in the water. Then there was the scooping: bringing in big nets full of slimy, wet, old leaves and picking through to find the hiding creatures. It took a bit of coaxing for some of them to decide to dig in with bare hands to discover insects, larvae, amphipods, isopods, and other previously unknown critters. And yes, there were tadpoles, a very strange looking and behaving Fairy Shrimp, and the larva of a large Diving Beetle, the somewhat daunting Water Tigers, which had some impressive pinchers.
The brave ones dove into the nets with bare hands.

There were lots of questions, absolutely no boredom, and a great deal of respect for the creatures we caught. By the time we were done we all had water over the tops of our boots. The class regrouped shook out their nets and cheerfully, for the most part, emptied their boots and wrung out socks.
Once again, each child drifted to their sitting place in the woods, to meditate a bit, to record on a journal page the observations and insights from their hours in the outdoors.
Team work helped when searching for creatures. 

Being part of their day and accepted as a part of the group was a joy and an honor. I love watching those light bulb moments of understanding. The hesitancy to touch something being overcome, and a fearful child opening his hand freely, to hold a slimy tadpole or a wiggling beetle.
This type of learning, to me, demonstrates the best of all worlds. The time to enjoy childhood is so fleeting. The window of opportunity to discover the wonders of nature is too small.
A quiet time for reflection and recording observations.

I salute those teachers, and parents, who recognize this and dedicate themselves to making sure that the next generations will produce young people who appreciate nature and are willing to stand up for the protection of our natural world.
The names of teachers and the school are omitted and the faces of children have not been shown to protect their privacy.


Photographs by Kathleen Smith.

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