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Plug Kids in to Nature

Originally appears in the Summer 2017 issue

“Why are we learning outdoors?” I ask my students. “To wake up our brains”, is the loud chorus from my grade two class at Little Falls Public School near St. Mary’s, Ontario. Outdoor learning is an integral part of their daily lives. These grade two children and over 200 students from kindergarten to grade 6 come to our school prepared; dressed in layers, with water bottles, hats and splash pants. They are ready for a day of learning adventures. This preparation is as important as completing homework or remembering to bring their planner.

I started the Forest School program at Little Falls in 2013 from a seed planted in the book, Last Child in the Woods -Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv[i]. The author talked about the absolute imperative of reconnecting children with nature in order to protect children’s personal wellbeing and to ensure that they feel connected to the natural world. I was inspired by the message and convinced by the research.

Students can all relate to the natural world. It is a beautiful transformation as kids peel away phobias, fears, and gradually clear away mental and physical barriers that have been socialized as our culture distances itself from nature. Within about two weeks of daily outdoor learning (approximately 50% of the school day) the kids dig deep (literally) loving survival scenarios, insect hunts, tracking adventures, chalk math and stand up meetings, It really is in their DNA, the natural world is within us all and provides that common ground to anchor your curriculum. Nature based school programs are well established around the world. There is an abundance of research in support of outdoor learning with some of less commonly known benefits being perseverance, independence, confidence, social competence, and engagement in learning. Despite this evidence, nature based programs are rare within public schools. Environmental, outdoor or nature education has primarily been an island of learning offered to specific grades at a location designated for this purpose with a prescribed curriculum offered in packaged programs. Alternatively, Nature Schools are mostly privately run for preschool aged children. School Boards are often reluctant to invest dollars in training teachers, designing outdoor school learning spaces and relinquishing constraints of liability concerns and pervasive focus on standardized achievement outcomes to support these types of programs. At Little Falls, our vision is to bring Nature back to children as a valued and foundational part of everyday experience. In this article, I’ll describe what our version of nature awareness learning looks, feels, and sounds like so that you may include the pieces that resonate with your own practice.

The belief behind forest schools is the completely non-radical notion that we must ground children in their immediate surroundings. Children must know and appreciate what’s in their own backyard, to recognize the real value of the nature that is part of their daily experience. Young children today seem to carry with them a vague yet intense concern for the health of the planet; an unfocused, unnamed worry that their world is under siege. They have heard about animals in distant lands becoming endangered or extinct, air and water being polluted and dire predictions about the devastation of global warming.  These children are well versed in doom and can tell us more about animals in the rainforest than those in their own backyard. Their questions are about places and concepts far removed from their actual experience. In a typical classroom this disconnect seems to be amplified with the strong embrace of technology that envelopes the lives of children, keeping them focused up close on screens rather than being wide lens observers of natural cycles of life. Re-connecting these children with nature is the goal of forest school programs, and should be at the top of your mind too when you are looking to start a nature schools program in your area. We believe that our students need to get plugged back in to nature; the local flora and fauna, seasonal cycles, weather systems, and environmental issues in their home communities. Through nature awareness education we hope to refocus each child’s understanding of the world through the lens of Nature. Here is what our version of forest school looks, feels, and sounds like and here are a few resources you will need to move the learning outdoors. See Must Have Resources to guide your next steps.

Forest schools in public education

A forest school day is filled with living things and the core routines which embed children in the natural world. Using animal calls to replace commands to gather, circle, listen or focus on an object of interest can set the tone right off the top. A coyote call tells the students to ‘run for the kill’ or move fast to the teacher for something new to learn, the owl hoot signals, listen up, and the crow call with finger pointing makes all eyes turn to a passing Osprey or muddy track. Each student has a tree friend on the property which they choose early in the year as a sit spot location, journaling space and to observe and record seasonal change. We have established seven learning ‘pockets’ around our fairly ordinary school grounds including several outdoor chalkboards, a sensory garden, a willow dome structure, an outdoor rooftop classroom, and grouping of stump tables. Each space has its own name, Maple Lane, Spruce Slope, or Daisy Garden, and the children are excited to visit them all each day. Each transition from one of our learning pockets are made seamless with games of sneak using predator/prey strategies to keep the kids flowing.

Every child adopts the name of a local animal with qualities which match their own. We speak these animal names throughout every day so they become embedded in the language of our classroom and in the topics of our research. Animal names act as a guide to shape behaviour or are used as a reminder of positive habits. Over the years, we have had many herons, woodpeckers, blue jays, and squirrels. Each animal has unique traits for our children to emulate. The heron is always watchful and aware of others in its surroundings and the squirrel always prepared and productive. Knowledge of these local creatures paves the way for future wonderings; if the cardinal and blue jay are at our feeder all winter, what happens to the oriole and the robin. Thanksgiving or thankfulness is part of our daily practice. We model the practice of giving thanks for our wellbeing, our natural world, for our elders and friends. Words of thanksgiving are spontaneously offered by the students in circle sharing, at our tribe tables, and in ‘bouquets’ (compliments) given after our weekly class meetings. Celebrations which in our culture have become focused on ‘receiving’ are refocused on ‘giving’ and widened to include environmentally-based events such as summer and winter solstice, World Water Day, or Earth Day. Teaching about traditions and celebrations is part of the curriculum and we can accomplish our learning objectives with a balanced focus which is inclusive of the natural world.

Students in forest school programs know that they are ‘nature kids’ and that we value their stories and wonderings about the natural world around them. These children recognize the distinct leaf shape of the Burr Oak, know the habits of the wintering white-tailed deer, they can tie knots, help erect shelters, and identify the local birds across the seasons. Their young minds are brimming with questions about the creatures they hold in their hands, the tracks under their shoes, bones and scat uncovered on the pathways which whisper a story they are now able to hear. These same children may have passed through a local park or walked a forest path in months passed without noticing life happening around them. Suddenly, they are awake to their natural surroundings and feel that special connection which comes from direct “hands dirty” experience. Nature can always be counted on to amaze, surprise, or even disgust, enlivening each day with the adventure of an ever-unfolding story.

Teachers need to ensure that all curriculum is covered and outdoor learning offers excellent opportunities to observe students use of learning skills and concept understanding. Science, math, language, art, and social studies are all subject areas which can be enriched through connections made actively outdoors. Lessons about the Water Cycle happen on those rainy days when puddles are in abundance and the storm sewer is high. Liquids and solids are perfect during sap season when a morning freeze turns into sap running in the afternoon. Math with chalk makes paved school walkways turn in to anchor charts and walls in to computation showcases. Multi-disciplinary teaching is embraced in this model. Subject areas become blended when a critter is the topic for the day. When we teach about groundhog, we are able to cover curriculum expectations such as reading temperature as we measure outdoor and body temperature in preparation for hibernation, linear measurement of den tunnel holes, time concepts for daily/monthly habits and life cycles, procedural writing of steps construct tunnel systems, and reading of nonfiction texts to gain new knowledge after the experience. All teachers need are field guides to reference and access to some of the many lesson plans available online for your grade group. Trust the seasonal happenings outside your window to provide the fodder for engagement.

Finding a ‘nature mentor”

Locating a nature diverse site and a mentor are critical in opening your classroom door to the wider world. Using seasonal change as a platform for teaching requires a site with some biodiversity and a guide or mentor to help you recognize the opportunities unfolding outdoors. At Little Falls, our program includes regular day-long visits to an off-school site where a rich natural diversity exists for our students to explore. Some classes, like mine, attend one day each week and others choose bi-weekly or monthly visits to outdoor school. Regular seasonal contact with this site is essential to cement the sense of place and awareness of change. We established a relationship with a skilled local Nature educator (Cobi Sauder) who owns a 100-acre property a short bus ride from our school. We hired Sauder as a mentor and facilitator for our adventures on the property. The plan for these days happens in a unique collaboration between our teachers and Sauder in the week preceding each visit. The focus in planning is a blend of what the weather holds, recent activities of wildlife, or interesting natural occurrences (like seed pods dropping or discovery of an animal skeleton) on the property. Part of the plan for these days come from students’ recent inquiry questions and current curriculum. Reaching out to local people who are stewards of the land and want to share their knowledge with others is a critical piece in moving your program beyond where you could take the learning yourselves. We invite along a couple of parents or grandparents each visit, they support the learning and quickly become ambassadors of our program. Outdoor School is filled with established core routines and traditions. Our students have an affinity with this site, they build strong memories of the various learning pockets; hiding within a tight grove of conifers, exploring under the weeping willow, or sneaking into the hardwood stand. This connects them with the landscape and changes within it.

The rich learning and deep thinking that happens on our outdoor school days provide the fodder for writing, reading, science and other curriculum based learning back in the classroom. The problem solving and creative play that spontaneously occurs in wander time or around the campfire strengthen the bonds between classmates and seems to lead to more inclusive class climate. Dealing with the elements of cold, wind, being wet or tired build a culture of caring as the kids help each other cope and persevere. Issues of behavior or self-regulation are resolved directly by the peer group, and the desire to be included in the wave of positive energy dampens the resolve of resisters, complainers, and those who may withdraw from challenge, hard work and risk. What is recognized gradually over the first months of school is that ‘we are stronger together.’

Everyone is included, everyone finds their islands of competence and can shine on this diverse learning journey, especially the child who struggles in a more conventional classroom. These children are able to demonstrate their knowledge, take a lead role, and gain social credibility in tasks that challenge them in completely new ways. This was evident for example in a recent activity where tribe groups were given a backpack with water, snacks, binder twine, a tarp, paper with pencil and a compass. The scenario they were presented with was of being lost in a forested area and needing to prepare to spend the night as darkness is falling. A quiet, demure, tiny girl with low academic skills and many assessed areas of deficit immediately took charge of the situation. She organized her tribe mates, planned the best shelter, reserved food and water for later, expressed concerns about firewood supplies. She quickly earned the admiration of children who had thought her a lesser colleague in learning. The experience had a lasting effect for this child, building confidence and stronger ties within her peer group. This success has been repeated over and over, particularly amongst children with special learning needs or challenging behaviours.

Your starting place

If you don’t already incorporate outdoor learning begin with a commitment to one hour per day reading, writing or doing math outdoors. Incorporate a couple of the nature immersion routines (see the list below) such as field guiding, sit spot reflection or storytelling and note its effect on your students.  Look for outdoor education centres, farms, or local woodland spaces which are accessible to your school and find out who are leaders in conservation authorities or outdoor education centres in your area. Start to build a core group of colleagues and parents who want to support this innovation. We have an active Forest School Council of committed parents and friends who spearhead the fundraising efforts, finding community partners for in-kind donations of materials and charitable organizations and foundations that support environmentally focused initiatives. Find local workshops that will increase your nature literacy in areas like plant/tree identification or tracking, Most of our teachers had no previous experience in outdoor education and are now mentoring others, welcoming visiting teachers who are eager to see our kids in action. At this point we mentor teachers in the ‘how to’ of taking the learning outdoors, building confidence and competence in managing students outside school walls and offering suggestions for resources which transport the learning more easily in snow, rain, wind, whatever Mother Nature brings. Your commitment at the start need only be to give your students regular contact with local natural settings across the seasons. Your first step may be small, but make it a step out the door and trust in yourself. Amazing learning can happen with Nature as your second teacher.

[i] Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, 2005.

Must-Have Resources for Outdoor Learning

*clothes pegs – wooden and plastic (variety of colours)

*cut away viewers, variety of sizes (slide frames, toilet rolls, picture frames)

*mini white boards, chunky whiteboard markers, old socks for erasing

*dry erase crayons, small clothe squares for erasing

*clipboards (one class set covered, and one set wooden single clip)

*transportable seats (wicker mats, washable/water proof/insulated small squares)

*chunky chalk, variety of colours (in covered container)

*chest of outdoor clothing to share, extra splash pants, mitts/hats, vests, wool socks)

*plastic covered thermometers, compass set, class set of measuring tapes

*large thick blanket (for class gatherings)

*black small thick writable groundsheets (for group work using chalk)

*colour swatches (variety of colours), coloured bracelets,

*fruit baskets, berry baskets, paper bags etc. for collecting adventures/scavenger hunt

*hard covered journals, sealed pencil and eraser box

*field guide (teacher or student created), nature stickers, wide book tape

*bug tent, magnifying viewer boxes or 2-way view, butterfly nets

Classroom Features

*prominently placed cardinal direction signs and touchstones

*Wonder Wall – for news of discoveries and I Wonder questions and answers

*Discovery Table – for found items from nature with a tag system for labelling

*All Things Are Connected” board for nature vocabulary and connections

*large toolbox (for shared resources) – glue sticks, scissors, sticky notes, paper, rulers

*living plants/trees (Norfolk Pine is great)

*lots of natural baskets, reused containers for supplies, clothes for cleaning

*waste system with labels including compost bucket, small garbage, large recycling box, marker recycling (Crayola)

*outdoor learning materials storage area clearly labelled and easy kid access

*outdoor learning wagon (with sides and wide tires), light toboggan

 

Kendra Martin founded the Little Falls Forest School in 2013 in St. Mary’s Ontario, where she remains a lead teacher providing workshops to fellow educators on how to “take the learning outdoors”. In 2015, she was awarded with Outstanding K-12 Teacher by the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication.  Contact her at kendra.martin@ed.amdsb.ca and visit http://edublog.amdsb.ca/forestschool