By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Writer and Consultant
Outdoors 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 Classroom, with many activity areas, and teachers trained to enhance children’s learning experiences in nature. Outdoor time in this school is called “nature time.”
Let’s start in the traditional playground. Joey, 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 for requiring 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.
Mikeyla, also six, is about to go outside for “nature time” in her school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. Yesterday evening her dog died. He had been her companion since she was a baby, and this was her first major death. As they all gathered, Mikeyla told her friends of Bounder’s death. They had been talking about making a play in the music and movement area, based on Disney’s “Frozen.” Mikeyla started talking with the “cast,” and said she might want to join them. But first, as she did every day, she wanted to visit the vegetable garden to see the “babies” that were starting to grow.
Miss Hewitt, their teacher, had overheard Mikeyla, and approached the group. “Maybe you could add a dog to your play, and call him Bounder. Would you like that?”
Mikeyla quietly said yes, and her friends agreed. Soon, outdoors, a large stick would become Bounder to Mikeyla’s Anna. Miss Hewitt, from a distance, would watch their play. (Later, when Mikeyla’s parents ask about her day in school, she’ll tell them how she had played again with Bounder in their production of Frozen. Her parents grasped this opportunity to encourage Mikeyla to talk more about her loss, helping her work through her sadness.)
Now, holding a notepad to document her observations, Miss Hewitt gathers the children in the meeting area of the outdoor classroom. She asks them if they have been noticing anything different in the vegetable garden. Mikeyla says that she sees baby vegetables growing, but doesn’t know what they are. Miss Hewitt asks for volunteers 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 then asks if anyone has plans for what they want to do today. “We’re going to play Frozen,” says one girl, “and we’re going to have a dog.” Other children ask to join. Two boys 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, Johnny. 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.
Later, Miss Hewitt reflects on the diversity of activities that took place during “nature time” that morning: her many opportunities to support the learning she saw, the children’s performance of “Frozen,” and Johnny’s vigorous play in an activity he chose. 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 look at possible answers to these questions.