A few years ago I asked myself, “what if we step outside of those walls? What if we took the book on how to stay inside the walls and well, tossed it.”
Like all great solutions my story started with a problem. I was working as a director at a childcare center and there was an incident with a teacher. What I had to address was an unhappy staff and kids that weren’t reaching their full potential. There was so much focus on the rules of learning that we forgot how to have fun.
I started gathering my staff together to brainstorm ideas on how to reclaim the fun in childcare and create an environment for the kids to feel free and happy. There had to be a way for all of us to be in this together, to benefit and learn from one another. And then one day it just clicked, and I said, “why don’t we take this outside?”
I was given a book by Richard Louv called the Last Child in the Woods. I HIGHLY recommend this book to any parent or childcare provider. Louv talks about the importance exposing ourselves to nature, especially children. He discusses how being outside allows children to be themselves, how they can use their outdoor voice and have more freedom.
I was not aware that nature deficiency existed until I experienced it myself. I learned more about nature deficiency and how children today spend less and less time outdoors. Louv explains that this is a dire problem and warns about the consequences if we don’t raise children to have a personal relationship with nature.
The term “nature-deficit disorder” is not a medical term but one used to describe issues that arise from alienation from nature. These issues can be a diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. There are studies that acknowledge that exposure to nature can help relieve some of these issues and also suggest that time in nature can help children build confidence, calm themselves, and focus.
According to an article from Greater Good Magazine, “research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces, benefiting from positive feelings, stress reduction, and attention restoration nature engenders.” After meeting with my staff and taking time to research, we had a plan. We gathered kids and teachers from different classrooms and age groups and took the classroom outside. There wasn’t a single subject being taught but free range. We explored with painting and fort building. We asked parents to bring in real materials that we could use for outdoor play that they didn’t mind getting dirty. Everything we used was reusable and recyclable.
As we continued to take the classroom outside we came up with more ideas on how we could teach in the space. We created different areas of interest to spark imagination and wake the wonder in our kids. Teachers manned these areas and invited the kids to choose what ignited them the most. We created an environment that was structured but child led. They had the freedom to decide how they would learn, and the teachers were able to engage and observe. We were able to take away the restrictions of modern-day childcare and bring back the basics of learning.
We had created a whole new world, and suddenly we were no longer teacher and student but family.
Like a family, we loved and respected one another. When we brought our classrooms outside we learned how to collaborate and coexist.
There were a group of kids that would build an imaginary world out of fabric and blankets strewn across the top of the playground. They would stay there for an hour while other kids respected their space and moved around to different invitations, or areas that interested them. One time I started reading a book aloud while sitting in a green space outside and groups of kids started to gather around. In the typical classroom setting, it’s challenging to get kids to gather and sit down for story time but when it was their choice and they had the freedom to move around or leave if they wanted to, it made a world of a difference.
Being outside gave our kids the opportunity to express what they were feeling, and the freedom to make their own decisions. In a short amount of time, we started to observe behavioral issues dwindle as well as anxiety and stress relief. Our kids were happy because our teachers were happy and vice versa. Indoor classrooms can get stiff and stagnant, and when a teacher is feeling stressed the kids would pick up on it.
Taking the classroom outdoors provides fresh air and movability. It also provides an opportunity for the teachers to learn from the kids to be able to teach them better. After each outdoor classroom day, the staff and I would gather together to go over what we learned and how we could improve for next time.
This was it. I had found my calling.
I made a promise to myself that when the day came that I would own my own childcare facility, I would make sure to create a space that would be our school family’s own outdoor classroom.
That’s exactly what I’ve done.
Praise the Outdoors is a weekly outdoor classroom experience at Kids at Play. Each outdoor time has a theme. Our first one, which happened today, was Halloween!
To prepare for the outdoor classroom my staff and I created a variety of different invitations: a mud kitchen (for mud pie making), a loose parts area (to encourage imaginary play), a sensory space (to get dirty and use our hands), a music area (to dance like no one is watching), and plenty of free space to run, play, and get messy.
Praise the Outdoors will be a weekly event every Friday through Fall and Winter. But, it is essential for teachers and children to know that if it’s not working in the classroom, it’s ok to go outside.
According to Louv, direct experience with nature, including getting their hands wet and feet muddy help kids learn how to have confidence and also how to make independent decisions. “Without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called executive function is at risk. Executive function is a complex process, but at its core is the ability to exert self-control, to control and direct emotion and behavior. Children develop executive function in large part through make-believe play. The function is aptly named: When you make up your own world, you’re the executive. A child’s executive function, as it turns out, is a better predictor of success in school than IQ.”
By providing this outdoor classroom experience we have created the opportunity for children to get their hands dirty, literally, and learn in an environment where they get to make their own decisions. By coming together and collaborating as a family, we are changing the way we teach and taking childhood back.
Our teachers are happy to come to work on Friday. Not because it’s a Friday but because they get to play too.
Everything we need to learn is provided to us through nature, and it is our innate instinct to play. There is a whole world waiting for us and it is just outside the walls.