Thursday, May 21, 2015

Take Learning Outside

As the weather warms up, we find ourselves gravitating to our outdoor space. There is always a free-style flow from indoors to out, with one adult in each space to supervise, foster learning, and nurture the children's natural curiosity! 
As a teaching team, we alternate weeks outside, and plan engaging invitations to play. A child who is less enthusiastic about choosing the outdoor centre might be enticed outside by a chance to explore some slime, and a child who usually wants to play hockey outside might be drawn in by a fun math game in the classroom.

Sensory and art activities work equally well inside or out. Literacy and numeracy opportunities arise organically when children are provided with enticing materials (seeds, soil, measurement tools, chalk, paint, and so on). 

We're always interested to note that there is a fairly consistent balance in the numbers of children inside and out. Instead of having a "schedule" of who goes in and who goes out, we encourage self-regulation by encouraging the children to make this choice based on how they are feeling each day.  

Whether inside or outside we ensure that there are plenty of choices for all kinds of play (social/emotional, gross motor, fine motor, dramatic). We also support different groupings (solo play, or in pairs, or in small groups), and marvel at the beautiful flow that takes place as the children drift in and out of play groups.
By taking learning outside (reading under the trees, for example), we easily engage our young learners. They are eager to pack their backpack with a snack and some "just right" stories that they can enjoy all by themselves in a shady place of their choosing. Changing the setting gives children (and teachers!) a new perspective, and offers many opportunities for spontaneous learning (and teaching).

Providing a variety of materials supports the growth of the many different learning styles. Art supplies blend as easily into our outdoor space as does sports equipment. There is truly something for everyone, and every learning style is considered valuable and relevant. Loose parts such as log slices, thick branches, and smooth stones offer limitless opportunities for open-ended play.
Being outside nurtures a child's imagination. Today a Year One student found a big branch and declared it a dinosaur bone. His friend found a smaller stick, craggy and twisted, and they worked to piece together their fossil skeleton. This led to a "tall tale" about how the first boy came across the bones, complete with dramatic pauses and shifts in volume. A plain old branch inspired this young child to create a story full of drama on the spot, and he clearly demonstrated his developing adeptness with oral language while sharing his growing awareness of the structure of a story. Each time I watch the video I took of his retell, I notice more and more (e.g. his use of connecting words like "so", "then", and "next").
Through experimentation and exploration, the children learn about their world. One day while we walked in the wooded area of our schoolyard, I came across some berries. I pretended that I was going to pick them and eat them. "Wow, look! Delicious berries! I'm going to eat some because I'm really hungry!" "No, Mrs. Pinkerton!" came the cries of my vigilant charges. "Those are Mother Nature's berries!" Another student corrected, "You shouldn't eat them because they might be poisonous". 
Al fresco learning reduces behavioural issues. Children who need a lot of movement and space get the physical activity they require to help them settle later in the day. Splitting the students into smaller groups reduces crowding in the classroom. We educators enjoy more  rich time with individual children when we are supervising less students, and are able to engage more deeply with learning explorations.
Being outside offers a sensory experience. Today we found Lily of the Valley blooming in our wooded area, and lay right down on our bellies to look closely at their tiny bell shapes. The children thought they looked like fairy hats, or fairy tea cups. My fairy-loving daughters will notice some of their fairy storybooks missing next week when I bring them in for the children to explore!

They were enchanted by the scent and sight of these beautiful little flowers. The apple blossoms that are in bloom perfume the paths we travel, and we listen to the bugs, birds, wind, and frogs that surround us. I suspect that these early experiences with the wonders of the outdoors will influence these children as they grow; I hope they will always seek the outdoors as a place of interest, exercise, and peace.
I've noticed an improvement in the overall physical health of the children in our class, in terms of their stamina, coordination, and endurance. There is also much less whining when one gets a little scrape or scratch! They are learning the limits of their bodies and what kinds of risks are reasonable. They are learning to pick themselves up when they fall down, assess what caused the fall, and try again. In addition to improving their physical health, I notice their emotional development: they are more confident, resilient, and calm when they have plenty of time to explore and play outdoors.
Any learning experience can be brought outside! We've done Circle Time, Math/Numeracy, Literacy, Art, Physical Education, Science, and Snack Time outside. The sky is literally the limit. Take your class outside and see what benefits you can add to this list! 
Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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