For the past six months, the West Preschool classroom has spent a significantly greater amount of time outside- a whole day each week, to be exact. Kathryn and Dilyn, the teachers in the West classroom made the decision to spend more time outside after reflecting on their own childhoods and the joy they felt as children and continue to feel as adults when well connected with nature. They were inspired by the work of Richard Louv, the author of The Last Child in the Woods and our keynote speaker at last year’s Early Learning Institute. Also influential was the work of Jeanne Goldhaber and Dee Smith, educators in Vermont that were involved with a toddler classroom spending a whole day in the woods each week over the course of a summer.
Kathryn said, “We were really inspired by the idea that this type of thing could be done with young children. We have always known that our children love to be outside, but we wondered what would happen if we spent a significant amount of time out there and let the children lead us through the experience.” So in September of 2015, they tried it. In the first couple of weeks of Outdoor Days the teachers noticed deeper engagement in the children’s play and a more “natural” flow to the day. Children weren’t as concerned about the schedule for the day and activities flowed easily from free/open-ended play to structured activities led by teachers. Group times happened outside as did lunch and the rest of the day, except for nap and bathroom breaks. The teachers and children were instantly hooked and Outdoor Days became a permanent fixture in the preschool schedule.
As the months have passed, seasons have changed, weather has occasionally been difficult, and adjustments have been made, mostly at the children’s request. Decision-making is a group effort and children lead the way. They decide how cold is too cold, how much rain is too much for them, and how to solve problems they encounter outside. One of the problems that came up quite a bit this winter was the temperature. When the weather was less than ideal, children voted to move the outside day to a day of the week that was going to be warmer, shorten the day, and sometimes, cancel it altogether. Other solutions to the rain or cold were explored including a study of what people need to stay dry and warm and how they could implement those ideas here at school. Through it all, the teachers have remained dedicated to following the children’s lead and encouraging cooperative problem solving as a community.
Learning certainly doesn’t stop on Outdoor Day. Teachers have used observations of children’s play and interests to engage the children in many projects including a study of bugs, weather, seasons, and more. One of the four year olds talked about a special thing only for Outdoor Days. “We use our special bags a lot. Inside there are special books, pens, and a magnifying glass. We use them to make observations. We write or draw things in there that we think we need to remember or that we like. I like to use those and every kid has their own bag,” said A., a four-year-old Westsider.
As the season morphs from winter to spring, the West classroom is excited about the opportunities spring provides. New plants are popping up on the playground, a variety of bugs are emerging from the ground and the excitement over the warm temperatures is quite noticeable. “The sun is yellow and warm. It’s so nice!” said P., a four-year-old. Another reported feeling excited that “winter will probably stay away for awhile, but sometimes it’s hard to be sure- the weather can be sneaky.”
“So much of my time was spent outside as a young child and I appreciate that so much. I feel a sense of calm and peace when I’m outside and I am excited to see that happening with our children as well,” said Dilyn. The teachers are looking forward to the warmer weather and the next phase of this adventure. They aren’t sure exactly what’s going to transpire, but that’s part of what makes this work so exciting for them. “We’re not sure how Outdoor Days might change, but I do know that we always want the children to be the leaders of big changes and weigh in on the daily decision making. That’s just so important,” Kathryn explained.