A Simple Idea That Could Transform Your School, Too

What self-respecting eleven year old would spend valuable time during a school lunch hour playing outdoors with kindergartners?  After all, a six-year age gap during this period of life seems generational on both sides.  And lunch hour is valuable time to spend with friends.  The younger children probably want the status involved in spending time with older students.  But what’s in it for the fifth graders?

A lot, if you’re a Recess Coach in the Nature Explore Classroom at the Grace Lower School, in Houston, Texas.  Coach Lily McClanahan says, “Being a Recess Coach and mentoring the younger students makes you realize how much they look up to you.”  Coach Julia Marshall, “Recess coaching impacted my life because when I came I was just a stranger to the kids on the playgrounds and the blacktop.  But when I left I had developed a life lasting bond between many children I did not know.”  And Coach Mason McIntosh says, “Recess Coach shows responsibility and how younger students can look at us.  We also learn from them.  They teach us how we should treat others, too.”

Older Grace students may be inducted into the school’s Leadership Council.  Its members have functions throughout the school.  Most popular of the positions within the Council is that of Recess Coach.  This is a serious position of responsibility for which each student receives training.  Conflict resolution, drawing reticent children into activities, and outdoor classroom pedagogy are among the subjects Coaches learn as preparation for their position.

Leigh Anne Shumate, Head of the Lower School, says, “All the students really love the Nature Explore Classroom, but when they have older students to play with they just really become engaged.  It has definitely reduced any disciplinary concerns… It allows our teachers to supervise play and to engage students instructionally, versus spending time supervising behavior.”

And Recess Coaches are right in there with the teachers in promoting learning in “The Outdoor Space at Grace.”  As with any effective teacher-student relationship, the learning goes both ways.  The younger children learn how to try out their ideas, and the Recess Coaches gain invaluable leadership and relationship skills.

 The older children are taught to enhance the kindergartners learning by encouraging them to experiment.  Participating side by side in activities with their mentees, Coaches ask questions such as, “What would happen if you tried this?  What about trying that?  How did you come up with that idea?”  Exploring different ways of approaching an activity, imagining the consequences of different approaches, and encouraging learners to be aware of their own creative processes.  These means of honoring the younger child’s learning are touchstones of effective educational mentoring.

Five or six Recess Coaches are in the outdoor classroom daily.  They are easily identified by their larger size, and by their hats.  Each mentor wears a hat with ‘Recess Coach’ in bold lettering, surrounded by other custom decorations.  In addition to playing with and mentoring the younger children, they set up and take down those natural materials that live in storage when not in use.

Relationships between Coaches and the kindergartners deepen beyond the boundaries of the Nature Explore Classroom, affecting the school at large.  More grade levels have been added because the program has proved so successful.

Now its benefits are available to most of the school’s students.  Mentors and mentees have lunch together, learn together outdoors, and attend each other’s graduation.  On a more personal level, some of the relationships have extended to play dates between older and younger children.

If the name Grace School seems familiar, it’s because we learned about the school’s other Nature Explore Classroom from Jil Jaeger, in a previous blog post.  Yes, the school has two outdoor classrooms.  The Grace Primary School’s “Outdoor Learning Center” was profiled last year.  The Recess Coach mentoring program takes place in the Lower School’s “Outdoor Space at Grace.”  We believe that such an innovative use of the outdoor classroom richly deserves the special attention of a separate post.  We also hope that it seeds similar programs in other Nature Explore Classrooms that have as wide an age spread in their children.

The Grace Lower School’s outdoor classroom has been transformational for all involved.  Leigh Anne captures its influence beautifully.  “What we started with Recess Coaches in The Outdoor Space at Grace has really transferred into other parts of our instructional day.  Those relationships in the community, and the sense of belonging that our students experience, has all been because of the Nature Explore classroom.”


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