Time Outdoors in Two Kindergartens – Part 4

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant 

Last week we learned about Joey and his teacher, Miss Smith and their experiences with their kindergarten’s traditional playground. We then met Mikeyla and her teacher, Miss Hewitt and caught a glimpse of their school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. As you learned, these two environments fostered radically different experiences.

Most schools for early childhood, by tradition rather than intention, have outdoor environments that support vigilance in their monitors, and competition in the children. Bullying at schools has become a hot national issue. Teacher attrition rates are at all-time highs. We believe these problems can be addressed when the environments we provide our children reflect our intentions, not our outworn traditions.

The unchanging environments of traditional playgrounds offer restricted avenues for children to work-through problems. The ever-changing environments of outdoor classrooms allow many. When the only activities available are physical, emotional issues are often expressed physically.  “Playground bully” is a common phrase, with good reason.

498_026It’s no wonder that teachers have told us children behave differently in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. From these many reports we have learned that “problem behaviors” are often a function of the environment.  When the environment honors the whole child, these behaviors usually soften, and often disappear over time. Both Joey, and the child who bullied him, deserve the opportunities an outdoor classroom would give them.  They deserve the chance to form the self-image that children like Mikeyla develop in outdoor classrooms.

For years, Miss Hewitt had simply taught children. Now, in the outdoor classroom, she is becoming skilled in in partnering with them in their learning. Here, she sees a constantly changing palette of learning opportunities. She observes and takes notes on the self-directed learning happening around her. In reflecting on these observations with the children, testing her hypotheses about their explorations, she scaffolds both their learning, and hers.

Miss Hewitt is now freer than ever to focus on the children’s learning.  Although she is always aware of safety issues, due to the quality of play in the outdoor classroom she doesn’t need to be as vigilant as she was in the old playground. As a consequence, she now views children as inherently social, and as strongly independent learners. Inspired by these views, Miss Hewitt is gradually integrating aspects of her outdoor style into her indoor teaching.

Miss Smith’s experience as a monitor on her school’s traditional playground couldn’t be more different. Her constant scanning for problematic behaviors and safety issues is the background for her few positive engagements with the children outdoors. She sees herself as a teacher indoors and a monitor outdoors.

Miss Smith believes children need civilizing. Her experience over the years as a playground monitor supports this view. Given the sameness, and the restricted range of behaviors generally seen on traditional playgrounds, this view of children is entirely logical.

IMG_9918In these blog posts, Miss Hewitt, Miss Smith, Joey and Mikeyla are drawn from personal accounts shared with us by teachers working in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. Teachers have told us of their experiences as playground monitors. These experiences contrast against their rich time in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms.

If the differences between the playground and the outdoor classroom seem too dramatically drawn, consider these words from Carie Cagnina, former Assistant Director of the Learning Center at Warren Village in Denver, Colorado:

 “After the old playground was removed we let the children out onto the dirt pile. We saw more imaginative play on that dirt pile than we’d ever seen in the playground.” 

Miss Hewitt’s personal transformation as a teacher in an outdoor classroom might seem exaggerated. We don’t think so. Educators have told us that their plans to retire or leave the profession have actually changed following their experiences with children in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms.

We all develop images about ourselves and others based on our experiences. Joey’s vulnerable self-image is reasonable given that he spends regular time in a competitive environment. Miss Smith’s image of children as needing her civilizing influence is reasonable given her observations on the playground. Yet so are Miss Hewitt’s newfound images of children as being naturally inquisitive and social. Mikeyla’s evolving image of herself as a curious learner both indoors and out is a self-image we see often.

392_096All children deserve environments in which their “true selves” are given the opportunity to flourish. All teachers deserve environments in which their skills, talents, and love for children can flourish. Our mission at the Nature Explore Project won’t be fulfilled until society understands the transformative power nature holds both for our children, and for those who love and care for them.