Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 1

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

Outdoor time is about to begin in two kindergartens. In one, this time is called “recess.”  It takes place on a typical playground; an asphalt surface for ball games and running, and a large multi-stationed climbing structure surrounded by green safety matting. The other school has a Certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, with a variety of activity areas, and teachers trained to enhance children’s learning experiences in nature. Outdoor time in this school is called “nature time.”

Photo Dec 04, 2 54 14 PMJoey, six, is standing in line, waiting for his teacher, Miss Smith, to open the door for recess. Yesterday a larger boy pushed Joey while they were both on the climbing structure. Miss Smith intervened. Joey is avoiding this boy today. As they all wait to go outside, Joey is preoccupied with staying away from him on the playground. He would like to play kickball, and climb again, but will have to wait until he gets outside before figuring out what he can do. He is planning on staying in sight of Miss Smith.

Miss Smith has been keeping an eye on the child who was teasing Joey yesterday. He is at the top of a short list of children she will monitor every few minutes. As usual, she constantly scans the entire playground to ensure the children are safe, and to intervene in any trouble before it amplifies. She also looks for signs of accomplishment (the child that invites others to play, the child that masters a new activity) so she can provide reinforcement. But the play is basically running, climbing, swinging, sliding or playing ball; good activities for building gross motor skills, yet also effective at fostering conflict in the children, and vigilance in the teacher. Miss Smith sees little variety in play from day to day. She knows which children are most likely to be involved in interactions that need monitoring. She has settled into a routine that keeps kids active, safe, and rewarded whenever possible.

392_122Mikeyla, also six, is about to go outside for “nature time” in her school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  A few days ago her new baby brother arrived home.  Her excitement over his arrival was tempered by sadness.  With all the attention focused on the baby, Mikeyla was feeling left behind.  This morning, she was uncharacteristically quiet.

Earlier, Miss Hewitt had spoken with Mikeyla’s father at drop-off, and had thought of spending extra time with her today.  Sitting with the children in the Gathering Area, Miss Hewitt asks who wants to go to the garden with her to look at the plants and compare them to the pictures of the vegetables that are growing.  Hands shoot up. She knows that Mikeyla enjoys caring for the garden.  “Mikeyla, could you help me with the garden?” she asks.  Mikeyla nodded quietly.

Miss Hewitt then asks if anyone has plans for what they want to do today. Two children say they want to make the hole in the dirt digging area deeper than they left it yesterday. Miss Hewitt looks towards a boy who hasn’t been able to keep still all morning. “You look like you have lots of energy today.  What do you want to do?” “Climb!” he says. “When we finish looking at the vegetables, I’ll come over and watch you climb on the treehouse,” she says.

392_076At the garden Miss Hewitt says to the children, “Please be extra careful with the baby plants.  They need more care and attention than the older plants.”  She then asked Mikeyla to help her with “the babies.”  For the next few minutes Miss Hewitt and Mikeyla talked about babies; first plants, then brothers.

Later, Miss Hewitt reflects on the diversity of activities that took place during “nature time” that morning, and her many opportunities to support the learning she saw.  She is pleased that Mikeyla went on to play happily with others, after their talk in the garden.  She smiles as she thinks to herself, “In the outdoor classroom I can be the teacher I’ve always wanted to be.”

What do Joey and Mikeyla learn about themselves through their time outdoors at school?  What images of the nature of children do Miss Smith and Miss Hewitt develop as a result of their time outdoors at school? In part two of this series we’ll begin to look at possible answers to these questions.