Positively Fourth Street

Steady rainfall prevented me from seeing and playing with children in their outdoor classroom at East Los Angeles Fourth Street Early Education Center. During my recent tour of the indoor classrooms with Josefina Navarro, the Principal, a young girl spontaneously approached us with the gift of a tiny flower. Natural materials, many brought in from the outdoor classroom, infused every room in the school. Art projects using plants, leaves and stones used to teach counting; even picture frames were made of twigs and leaves. I felt a real loss of opportunity by not getting the chance to play outdoors with the students. Yet after a rollicking, spirited, laugh-filled interview with Josefina, and many of her teaching and support staff, I knew that I had much to write about. Being with the children in their amazing Nature Explore Classroom will have to wait for another day.

Almost two years ago, I interviewed Josefina and her staff by phone for the post: Nature Transforming Teachers and Children. During that interview, everyone took turns speaking. Not so this time. Topics and speakers bounced back and forth as one teacher would amplify the observations of another. New insights sprouted from collective thinking. Voices were excited and expressive. Descriptions of wondrous events were met with a spontaneous collective “Ahhhh!” And there were many of those.

Josefina and her staff are deeply emotionally connected with their students and community on a journey they all understand to be profound and rare. One young teacher poignantly described this relationship. “I’ve been here about two years and a half and I love it. I think I fell right in the place. I belong. All our lives when I was growing up we were a low-income family, living in the same neighborhood as these children. So we are them.”

 A linear, narrative blog post would be a disservice to the variety of voices that contributed so many stories and ideas into this meeting. This post, and the next, will bounce between stories, quotes, observations and ideas. You’ll see the spirit of this school-community growing in the spaces between them.

 

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Teachers as Learners

Everyone I met, from Silvia Diaz, Caretaker of the large outdoor classroom; to Monica Farfan, the Office Manager; to the teachers, were truly passionate about being with children in nature. Yet many were not as comfortable outdoors when they started at the school as they are now. Said Teacher Edith Figueroa, “We were all excited when we came on board… We discovered a lot of us were afraid of insects…  It was new to everyone that came on board. We were all being taught ourselves. At the same time we were teaching kids we were also learning.”

 

Nature Explore Classroom vs Nature

One student had gone camping with his family over a weekend. He brought back natural materials such as acorns, branches for the school. “They brought leaves even though they were broken,” said his Teacher. They brought back some natural materials the teachers hadn’t seen locally. When they asked the student where he’d gone camping he said, “In the woods. It looked like my school, but not as nice.”

 

Virtual Camping in the Outdoor Classroom

Students expressed a desire to go camping in the outdoor classroom. One teacher brought a tent so they could “go camping” during the day. They turned naptime into camping time. But this virtual camping experience wasn’t real enough for one child.  She said there wouldn’t be stars out during the day, “When you go camping there are stars.” A teacher observed during our interview that the children are even becoming more aware of their natural environment that they don’t see in the outdoor classroom. And one child upped the ante by saying that his mother had given him permission to camp there overnight…

 

Finding a Common Language in Nature and Play

Josefina administers two schools. Her other school has a sister school in China. She is now bringing the Fourth Street school into that relationship. “One day… I invited them (the Chinese visitors) to come here (Fourth Street). When they opened the door what was the reaction? ‘WOW!’ And that wow lasted a few seconds.” The Chinese guests didn’t even visit the indoor classrooms. All they wanted to see was the outdoor classroom. All they wanted to do was to play with the kids. “They didn’t speak any English. For them it was not an issue.” Using the common languages of nature and engagement, they played with the children and took pictures to share with their school back in China.

 

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Next week we’ll learn about the little girl who catches bees, and see how nature seems to keep both children and staff healthy.

If you are interested in learning how a natural outdoor classroom can positively impact children in your area, please contact our team at info@natureexplore.org or request a Resource Guide.

 


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