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  • Writer's pictureLucy Crisetig

Surrounded and Educated by Nature

The case for Outdoor Classrooms

In this “civilized” world most of us have been led to believe we’re something separate from nature, the very nature that sustains us.

“The Lorax” comes to mind, Dr. Seuss’s 1971 children’s book. We sit in our tin palaces, looking at tin trees and concrete grass.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” -Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

This separation from nature has affected our children in subtle ways.

As a parent, I’ve seen how my children and their friends have grown up, separated from the adventure of exploring nature. Another perspective, as a parent volunteer, it opened my eyes to issues many children are facing. They’re growing up in an out of sync education system.

This is part of the reason I wrote the book called Finding Sofia” -be inspired”.

Outdoor Classrooms

Outdoor Classrooms are an innovative idea that’s gaining traction in the world and could be the answer for our children’s education.

Since writing the book, I’ve found they’re sprouting up across the globe for all ages as a more effective way to learn.

Children from nursery school age to high school are benefiting from learning outside, from and within nature.

Outdoor Classrooms are increasingly being considered, especially for younger age groups.

CTV News says, “… the Outdoor Classroom is part of a growing trend in Canada: Schools building dedicated infrastructure to encourage outdoor learning.”

Outdoor Education combines three key parts: experiencing by heart, hand and head, as explained by International Certified Education Courses, who trains educators to teach in Outdoor Classrooms.

One model found across Europe, called Walderkindergarten, has grown in popularity in the last decade. Here, the forest provides the materials — acorns, leaves, bark — and children use what they find for dramatic play, science experiments, math and self-directed inquiry.

Toronto’s Blaydon Public School has been witnessing a change in the way students learn and behave. The students spend 75 minutes a day outside using stump seats, log benches and other simple structures as parts of their classroom. They bring their outdoor experiences back to the indoor classroom where teachers have seen profound improvements in literacy and reasoning.

Abington Friends School in Pennsylvania was developed as a collaboration between parents, botanist, landscape architect, science teacher and outside director. It’s a natural landscape of boulders and grasses with wooden fort towers, rope bridges, a slide, goat path and farm pumps for ponds sprinkled amongst them. The head of the school, Rich Nourie called the opening of this Outdoor Classroom “a signature day” for the children grades one through eight.

Fuji Kindergarten outside Tokyo utilizes the school’s rooftop. A playground sits above a ring of wall-less classrooms. Trees grow with hammocks strung between them, handwashing stations, water pumps, earthen mounds are all part of the learning. The design philosophy of Takaharu Tezuka allows children the freedom to move with relatively few boundaries. He explains his philosophy in this TED talk.

Our children have become anxious to make phone calls to order something, ask for information, or uncomfortable talking with their grandmother.

They spend much more time indoors on different electronic devices than previous generations.

Children don’t know how to take responsibility for their own actions, preferring to blame others for the simplest of things.

Worse yet, they’re escaping from something deep down they feel is wrong with them. Something they’re afraid to face because they think it might be so ugly.

Drug and alcohol use, sex, porn and gaming are distractions our young people turn to more often than previous generations.

Children’s Mental Health Report by the ChildMind Institute estimates out of 74.5 million children in the U.S., 17.1 million have or had a psychiatric disorder.

Of course, the education system is not the only reason, however, with more expansive conversation it could be part of the answer.

Upgraded ideas for the structure our young people spend so much of their time in can benefit so many areas of their lives.

What has changed in the last 30 years?

  • Less outdoor time and interaction with nature

  • More screen time; TV, phones, computers, gaming systems

  • Less heart centred communication/focus

  • More stressed parents; working longer hours to pay for rising costs, more “stuff” to buy

  • Less communication, interaction and support from neighbours/family; family members living further apart, neighbours all just too busy

  • Less creative time in school; cuts in music, art, dance, phys. ed. programs

What has remained the same?

  • Indoor class time of 5–6 hours

  • Sitting in desks for the days’ duration

  • Desks in rows, standing in line

  • Quietly listening or working

  • More theory than hands on practical learning

Outdoor Classrooms have shown many benefits as most educators noted:

  • Supports childrens’ learning and development in all domains

  • Most frequent improvements in creativity, imagination and social/emotional development

  • Better to observe childrens’ interests and needs

  • Special needs children were more engaged

  • Positive and appropriate developmental behaviours

  • Educators felt more refreshed and patient, therefore better able to respond to childrens’ needs with compassion and empathy

  • Better grades, better health, decreased stress levels, increased motivation

  • Better understanding and attitudes toward the natural world of which we’re all a part

Just as in the book, “Finding Sofia -be inspired”, high school students are also benefiting from this movement.

Involving students in the planning and building are key to the learning process.The high school students are building emotional resilience with self confidence, problem solving skills, cooperation, and communication.

Gravenhurst High School in Ontario has made an Outdoor Classroom with great success all around. It was a collaboration of students and teachers successfully receiving funding from the Board of Education which propelled this exciting initiative.

“…Students here learn about their environment, how to grow and care for crops they plant from seed, soil composition and native plant species. This keeps them informed about their food choices and how all their choices affect not only themselves but also those around them for generations to come,” said Penta Ledger, Outdoor Classroom Co-ordinator.

Moreover, they learn they can trust themselves and life to support them.

That’s probably what we all want for the future of humankind and life on this planet.

Isn’t it time we all come back to our true nature?

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