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Children in Bloom

posted May 31, 2017, 8:42 AM by Eli Roberts

By Heather H.


Four boys come together, standing next to a patch of beautiful Blackfoot Daisies.  After much discussion, they decide that when they are older, they will go to college and buy farms next to each other afterward.  Proximity will allow them to share crops and resources with one another.  While discussing which crops to cultivate and which animals to rear, they remind each other that they must feed them and provide a water source on their land so that they can survive.  After this initial meeting, the boys regularly gather to share new ideas and work on their plan.  Together, they choose who will perform each job on the farm.  They also decide to sell their crops in order to make money and buy farming machinery to make their jobs easier.  The boys are just eight years old and after four months of planning, they are finally content and eager to get started.

When a child reads a textbook, they may carefully peruse its words and study its illustrations.  They might imagine what it would be like to interact with an organism or live in a different habitat.  They could even lose themselves in a daydream, picturing themselves inside the text.  As teachers, we endeavor to inspire our students to wonder about the world around them and we know that imagination is an important skill to build; however, children deserve more than this.  They deserve a chance to actually experience nature and understand their role in their environment.  Outdoor learning is a method by which this can be done.  

This past year, I focused on implementing outdoor learning as part of a Professional Development Unit (PDU) along with my partner teacher and four kindergarten teachers.  Curious about the effects of outdoor learning, we studied and devised ways to get our kids outside, learning about the natural world.  However, in order to properly study its effects, it was important that we understood exactly what outdoor learning is.  Outdoor learning essentially means that the natural world functions as a classroom. 

Children are spending less and less time outdoors.  Indeed, many of today’s kids are experiencing ‘indoor childhoods,’ spending as many as eight hours each day inside, staring at screens.  Conversely, today’s children generally spend mere minutes each day playing and learning outside.  In response to this growing trend, the National Wildlife Federation recently published a report stressing the importance of children not only learning in, but also having unstructured playtime in the outdoors.  Citing experts within the organization, they claim that the benefits of outdoor experiences are wide-ranging.  They contend that students who spend time outdoors can experience improved classroom behavior, motivation to learn, as well as success in academic content areas and even standardized tests. 

To some, outdoor learning may seem too abstract or too ‘pie in the sky.’  How can we ensure that students are actually learning and not just daydreaming or playing around?  These same concerns plagued me when my PDU team first decided to investigate outdoor learning.  I hesitated and wondered if my students could experience such benefits through outdoor experiences.  Nevertheless, we dove in and began our exploration of the natural world, beginning with the gardens at our school.

As a teacher of students with a significant variety of learning styles and abilities, I never dreamed that all of my students would have meaningful experiences and learn so much from being outside.   While in the gardens, students held discussions, made insightful cross-curricular connections and thoroughly enjoyed themselves at the same time.  They learned to respectfully question one another, to share their observations and developed a concern for the environment.   Being in the gardens and visiting them throughout the year enriched students’ learning and also provided them with interactive experiences to solidify academic concepts.

Moreover, I found that teaching in the garden helped to make me a better teacher, as well.  I looked forward to visiting the garden with students and planned ways to use the habitat throughout the school day.  Regularly using the garden as an outdoor classroom also inspired me to become more creative with my instructional design.  I planned outdoor science lessons for my team, ranging from nature walks to scientific investigations and observations.  I also held language arts and math lessons outdoors.  Not only that, but I also signed up to teach gardening after school at my campus.  Using this approach enabled students to make authentic connections to their learning and engage in real world problem solving. 

Too often, I have seen teachers weary of taking their students outside.  They claim that students will run around, misbehave, waste time, etc.  They worry that outdoor lessons are inadequate or their expertise is insufficient.  These are excuses.  The outdoors should be an extension of the classroom.  Teachers should have norms and expectations for behavior and work.  What is most important, though, is to establish a routine with students and outdoor spaces.  The more frequently students venture outside and wonder about the world around them, the better their behavior will naturally be and the more refined their investigations will become.  Whether learning or playing in the outdoors, these experiences clearly lead to academic gains and personal benefits for students. 

To deny children these opportunities is to provide them with an incomplete education.