Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 3

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

When we met Mikeyla, she was going to the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom with her teacher and friends.  Just a few days earlier, her new baby brother had arrived home.  Mikeyla had been feeling neglected at home, and was quiet at school.

DSC00273Mikeyla had always enjoyed tending plants in the garden.  Yet on this day, Miss Hewitt had invited her to help care for the baby plants.  While they talked, Mikeyla began to think that her baby brother also needed special care; like the plants.

Mikeyla knows she can always find something to discover in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  She also knows she can explore on her own, or share discoveries with friends.  One day it’s a new insect.  Another day it’s learning how to make musical sounds on the akambira.  Today it was caring for the baby plants.  She knows learning happens both indoors and out.

When outdoors, Mikeyla feels herself to be a competent learner, although she couldn’t yet articulate that feeling.  She carries this image of herself everywhere she goes.  And she thinks of her teacher as a learning-partner when in both outdoor and indoor classrooms.

Yet unseen by Mikeyla are the many roles the Outdoor Classroom and her wise teacher play shaping her self-image.  To her, “nature time” is about play.  Miss Hewitt knows better.

During this time in the outdoor classroom, Miss Hewitt is happy to see Mikeyla smiling while playing with her friends.  She is thankful that the outdoor classroom provides many opportunities for engaging with the “whole child.”  This level of connection was rarely possible in the old playground, and has transformed her own image of children.

Miss Hewitt, like Miss Smith, had few significant outdoor experiences during her own childhood, and for many of the same reasons.  She too had been a recess monitor for years.  And two years ago, before her school’s large metal and plastic playground equipment had been removed, she had shared many of Miss Smith’s beliefs about the social nature of children.  Outdoors is for rambunctiousness, indoors for learning.

Yet over the two years of Miss Hewitt’s experience in the school’s outdoor classroom, her attitudes towards children have changed. At the outset she noticed an immediate reduction in competitive behaviors and bullying.  Boys and girls played together more often.  Children went to whatever activity area they wanted, and played or explored as they wished.  This was not typical playground behavior.  As children played in the outdoor classroom, Miss Hewitt gradually became skilled in seeing the children’s learning across many domains.  With inspiration and guidance from Nature Explore workshops, she also became skilled at partnering with children in this learning.

DSC_0138Sometime during the second month in the outdoor classroom, Miss Hewitt had the first of many realizations that changed forever the way she thinks of children, and of her teaching.  She thought of how much she looked forward to this outdoor time with the children.  She contrasted this feeling against the tension felt during her playground monitoring days, when most of her energy had been channeled into ensuring safety.  In hindsight, she saw that the static playground equipment had engaged only a fraction of her children’s capabilities, while the outdoor classroom challenged them holistically.  Now she enjoys the freedom to engage meaningfully with children who themselves have freedom to explore whatever interests them.  In her “aha experience” Miss Hewitt realized that free-play in the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom is revealing children’s authentic social behaviors; the deeper nature of children.  In the right environment, children are socially cooperative, and self-directed learners.

Later this week, we’ll pull the learning together.