The New York Times recently ran an article about Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle, where the outdoors serve as classrooms without walls. Stenhouse author Herb Broda wrote an encouraging response to the article. Read below and then check out his books Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors, as well as his recent blog posts of practical ideas that help you turn your schoolyard into an outdoor classroom.
Learning from Fiddleheads
The sky is the ceiling and the landscape provides the audio-visual experiences at the Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle. At this innovative preschool, eloquently described in a recent New York Times feature Preschool Without Walls by Lillian Mongeaudec (Dec. 29, 2015) students spend four hours a day – rain or shine—in classrooms among the native trees in the University of Washington Botanic Gardens. Students are engaged in a wide range of activities that focus on experiencing the surrounding environment. They are immersed in hands-on nature like digging, building forts, taking “listening walks” and building child-size nests in wood chip piles.
The most popular word at Fiddleheads is “notice”. Primary emphasis is given to observing and describing the nature that is literally at children’s fingertips. “Kids are the best at sharing in joy and wonder”, explains a teacher.
Nature preschools with daily outdoor experiences at the heart of their programs have been growing in number—up from twenty in 2008 to ninety-two currently, according to the Times article. Now, I realize that it is highly unlikely that outdoor immersion preschools like Fiddleheads will eventually dominate the scene. Indeed, there are solid arguments both pro and con regarding totally outdoor-based programming. The article does, however, encourage serious consideration of outdoor learning as an effective instructional method.
It really doesn’t matter to me whether a school has a totally outdoor-based program, or a more typical situation where teachers step outside the classroom door to use the schoolyard as a teaching tool. The important thing is that children are receiving frequent contact with nature.
Regular exposure to the natural world provides many benefits that enrich instruction and reconnect children with the outdoors:
- Nature provides both a spacious venue for learning, as well as an abundant source of content. Both students and teachers welcome a change of pace and place. Variety is indeed the spice of life—and the energizer of teaching.
- The outdoors is the ideal place to teach universal process skills like observing, describing, classifying and analyzing. Not only are these skills critical to science, they are also integral to language arts, mathematics and the creative arts.
- Outdoor learning experiences provide generous opportunities for creative play, and a necessary respite from the incessant beeps and glare of electronic devices. We are in desperate need of the calming effects that only nature can provide.
- Research over the last several years is confirming that frequent outdoor experiences contribute to good health, positive mental attitude and even improved cognitive function. It isn’t necessary to be outdoors all day everyday to achieve these benefits. All that is required are regular doses of what author Richard Louv calls “Vitamin N” (Nature).
The article gives me great hope! At a time when children’s natural curiosity about the outdoors is eclipsed by the demands of busy schedules and the ever-present glow of video screens, schools may be the only place where children are encouraged to interact with nature. It’s empowering to realize that the enthusiastic engagement and joy of learning that happens daily at Fiddleheads is possible on your schoolyard!
January 21st, 2016
The weather might be getting cooler, but it’s still a great time to take your class outdoors! Here are some tips from Herb Broda on finding the best seat in the house — or out of the house. Herb is the author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors.
When is the best time for outdoor learning? Any month will work, but the start of the school year is ideal!
“But, what should I do first?” I strongly encourage folks to begin by locating a suitable staging area near the school. I like to call it the “Teaching/Meeting Area.”
The teaching/ meeting area is more than just a location—it’s a powerful classroom management tool. Rather than just running out the door and scattering on the lawn, students know that they are to move directly to the meeting area where they will sit, hear directions for the activity or receive materials—actually experience an introduction to a lesson just as they would indoors.
As you plan the outdoor meeting area, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Keep it close to the building. The less walking time the better. The longer the walk to the teaching/meeting area, the longer it will take to bring everyone back on task.
- Be aware of distractions and student traffic patterns. Avoid nearby playground equipment and walking routes that students and adults typically use.
- Be aware of sun and shade. If you know there will be a certain time of day when the space will get heavy usage, try to find a spot that may be a bit sheltered from the sun
The best news is that you don’t have to spend a lot of money on an outdoor meeting area! Here are a few basic ideas:
Logs provide ideal seating material! They are inexpensive or free, very easily obtained, and readily moved. Logs placed vertically will accommodate varying student heights and, by including several log diameters, most any size posterior can also be accommodated!
Probably the major downside to using logs is that they are destined to disappear! Especially in damp areas, logs will rot in a few years and will need to be replaced. Contact a local nature center to learn what types of trees are most rot resistant in your area. Some teachers have also noted that logs may attract nests of insects, so inspect and replace is a good policy.
Although replacement will be necessary, a rotting log beautifully turns into a teaching tool when its useful life as a seat is over. Just lay the log on its side near your outdoor learning area and let students watch how the log becomes a habitat for tiny critters, and eventually enriches the soil.
Rocks and Boulders
Rocks and stones are certainly durable, but also heavy! Before installing a rock or boulder seating area you need to be very sure that your location will not need to be changed.
Another potential down side of rock seating is the difficulty of trimming around the rocks if they are in a grassy area. Logs can be easily rolled aside for mowing, but rocks require manual trimming or things can look overgrown by mid-summer.
No need to spend a lot of money on benches. Just make sure that they are sturdy and safe. One Wisconsin school just used one long sturdy bench as its teaching meeting area. You can also position logs horizontally, or as supports for boards to create a bench.
Flexible and Cheap!
It’s best to use the same location for your meeting area, but you don’t have to have fixed seating in place. Students can carry old stadium cushions to the outdoor teaching/meeting area. Put out a general call for cushions and you may receive more than you need! Another option is to take gallon freezer bags and stuff them with rags or paper– a throwback to the sit-upons made popular by Girl Scouts. Some companies make bags larger than one gallon, which makes it easier to accommodate bigger students.
A school in Michigan contacted a local home improvement store and received a classroom set of plastic pails. The buckets can be inverted to create seating, and also provide a handy way to carry materials outside.
A word about commercial seating products
An internet search for “outdoor seating” will yield thousands of options! The only limit is your budget! If you decide to invest in commercial seating, I would encourage the use of tables that also provide seating. Many schools have utilized sturdy picnic tables, some of which are convertible from bench to picnic table. A sturdy table/seat that is weather resistant and tough enough to last for many years will be expensive. I encourage schools to use inexpensive items like logs or simple benches until you are certain where you want to permanently place the meeting area.
For further information: Chapter Two, “Enhancing the Schoolyard for Outdoor Learning”, from Moving the Classroom Outdoors (Stenhouse Publishers) has additional information and pictures relating to setting up an outdoor teaching/meeting space.
September 21st, 2015
We continue our series on outdoor education with another post from Herb Broda. Now that true spring weather is surely just around the corner, he gives us some ideas on how to encourage students to be more observant of nature around them.
Although change always occurs in nature, the shift from winter to spring is for me one of the greatest shows on earth! From a curricular standpoint, this amazing spectacle of renewal provides a great backdrop for teaching the critical skill of careful observation. The process skill of observation is integral to most content areas, including literacy, science, mathematics, the social sciences and the arts.
Now is a great time to think about how the dramatic change of seasons can be woven into your literacy curriculum. For example, observing the shift from winter to spring can be incorporated into many writing genres. Descriptive and expository writing are the most obvious, but journals and poetry are easily fueled by the changes seen in nature. Even narrative and persuasive writing can be sparked by close observation of changes outside.
Teachers repeatedly mention that a primary goal of outdoor learning is to make children more observant. Improved observation skills transfer outside of the classroom also. One teacher shared how a student burst into his classroom and said, “I saw tracks on my way to school today!” Although the child had probably passed tracks dozens of times before, a lesson about tracks on the schoolyard had made this child more alert even when he wasn’t in school.
Careful observation of seasonal changes is a great introduction to the study of phenology, which Webster defines as “periodic biological phenomena that are correlated with climatic conditions.” Observing changes and the conditions that surround transitions fosters strong observation skills, and also emphasizes the interconnectedness of the natural world. The USA National Phenology Network has an excellent website that includes resources and activities for fostering observation skills through the lens of phenology. I encourage you to take a look at their material.
With the low cost of digital cameras, students can use their observations to create scrapbooks, posters and phenology wheels with pictures that they have taken. By observing a small area closely over time students become amazingly adept at detecting even slight changes. Excitement erupted at one Pennsylvania school when students saw a tiny patch of grass emerge as the winter snow began to melt. In a world dominated by computer imagery and electronic beeps, how refreshing to have students thrilled to see a few blades of grass emerging from under the snow!
In Wisconsin, Georgia Gόmez-Ibáñez helps her students become better observers of nature by creating a “phenology wheel” with her students. Each year she has the students pick a spot where they stand and take a picture each month and arrange the pictures in a circle. She also has another wheel that is divided by month and students keep track of what they notice as seasons change. To guide the observations, she has a checklist that identifies characteristic changes that can be easily spotted in each season, such as certain plants and animals that are evident at various times.
If it’s still snowy in your area, go outside to look for “track stories” after a fresh snowfall. It’s great fun and encourages careful observation, attention to detail and speculation. Tracks after a snowfall can show evidence of animal homes, feeding patterns, and even signs of predator-prey interaction. Wisconsin teacher Matt Tiller takes advantage of the “thaw” that usually occurs in snowy areas, and has students look for the mazes of little tunnels that are uncovered when snow melts in an open field. Matt calls it looking for mouse condominiums. This great sign-of-life activity is based upon a description found in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac.
Take advantage of the enthusiasm that is sure to erupt as we emerge from a long winter and begin to see the reassuring signs of spring. Getting students to observe nature closely will never be easier or more rewarding!
March 27th, 2015
We continue our outdoor learning series with Herbert Broda with a new post that includes some helpful book recommendations and activities for outdoor learning in the winter.
Using Books as a Springboard
Winter is a great time to explore books that could be incorporated into outdoor teaching. A few years ago I met Florence Milutinovic of Park Forest Elementary in State College, Pennsylvania who shared with me a wonderful way to incorporate outdoor learning into a unit about prehistoric life. Here is the activity she shared with me for Moving the Classroom Outdoors.
Florence takes her students outside and reads the book If the Dinosaurs Came Back by Bernard Most to her second grade class. This whimsical children’s book entertains kids by showing dinosaurs in a modern day setting, catching lost kites and pushing away rain clouds. She then poses the question, “What if dinosaurs came to our schoolyard?” Students then draw pictures of what that might look like and also write about what they think might happen. Creativity as well as a sense of scale come out as kids write things like, “They would eat all the leaves” or “They would give children rides.”
As students continue to learn more about dinosaurs, Florence poses the question, “Could dinosaurs fit in our schoolyard?” She then cuts yarn to the lengths of various types of dinosaurs—the longest was 180 feet, while the smallest was three feet in length. The class took the yarn outside and held the various lengths to see for themselves where the various “dinosaurs” might be able to go on the school grounds. As a culminating activity, dinosaur “eggs” were hidden on the schoolyard and the class trooped outside for a new twist on the traditional egg hunt!
The dinosaur in the schoolyard activity is a great example of using the outdoors as a venue for learning. Although Florence could have read the book to students seated in a classroom, the concept of “dinosaur” and the scenarios portrayed in the book are enhanced by an outdoor setting. Simply talking indoors about the size of dinosaurs just doesn’t make the same dramatic impression that is created when twenty-five kids hold 180 feet of yarn and try to imagine the body that occupied such a large space.
Park Forest teachers also suggested two books by Lois Ehlert as great springboards for outdoor activity and discussion. One is Leaf Man, a delightful picture book that tells a story with leaf collages that take the form of different shapes and animals. The book can inspire wonderful art projects using fall leaves, and most certainly makes children more aware of the variety, beauty and complexity of the autumn landscape. What a great precursor to a walk!
Planting a Rainbow is another Ehlert book designed for primary level children. The book is a perfect way to build excitement for planting on the school grounds. It begins in the fall and introduces children to several types of familiar bulbs that can be planted on most school sites. Beautiful pictures then show the springtime flowers that emerge from the bulbs. The book progresses to familiar annual flowers that can be planted as the weather warms. I love the last third of the book that shows the spectacular colors found in common flowers around the schoolyard and in home gardens. The color section would be a perfect segue into an outdoor color matching activity. I like to use paint chip samples (usually readily available from paint or home improvement stores if you explain that you are a teacher) and have children try to match the paint sample with something in the outdoors.
At the primary grades, there are hundreds of picture books that can create enthusiasm for outdoor exploration. Like the books described above, many books written for very young readers immediately and almost instinctively lead to outdoor activities.
If you are looking for a good source of current outdoor related books, the National Outdoor Book Awards (NOBA) website is good place to begin. NOBA is “a non-profit, educational program, sponsored by the National Outdoor Book Awards Foundation, Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education, and Idaho State University.” The program was founded in 1997 and includes a children’s books category. You can look at lists of book winners for every year since the program began. You can search only for children’s books and get a good listing of books that have been selected since the beginning of the program. At a time when traditional outdoor-themed books are being eclipsed by social issues and dystopian topics, the NOBA site provides a helpful compilation of books that emphasizes the outdoors.
January 21st, 2015
We are excited to have another great post from Herb Broda, author of Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors. In this post he offers some ideas for taking math outdoors to re-energize your classroom and to provide some important math visuals for your students. Check out Herb’s earlier blog post about the Tale of the Tape.
Taking Math Outdoors
It was a strange sight—twenty three fifth graders forming several head-to-toe lines as they stretched out on the playground. Although it looked like a game, these students were actually taking an abstract concept and translating it into concrete (pardon the pun!) terms.
Teacher Laura Grimm had been teaching the concept of data representation through graphing. A variety of examples had been provided indoors through books and other media. But just looking at examples and doing an occasional worksheet was only part of the instructional design. Laura wanted her students to also experience the concept. The playground provided a perfect venue for using the outdoors as a teaching tool.
The human bar graph.
Students grouped themselves according to birth month. Signs had been placed on the ground for the twelve months so students found the correct month and stretched out to form their head-to-toe lines on the pavement. The activity visually verified that most students in this year’s class were born in August.
As an extension activity, Laura has kids line up according to birth dates. The long line is closed to form a circle on the blacktop. She then draws lines on the ground to show where the four seasons would fall and an instant circle graph/pie chart is created.
Although students had fun with the activities, there also was a subtle learning process taking place. Abstract concepts like “data representation”, “bar graph” and “circle graph” suddenly take on new meanings as students experience these ideas rather than only read about them. After you have been a part of a living bar graph you definitely have a stronger perception of the concept!
Students line up by birth month.
Chalk lines show the four seasons in a year.
I want to emphasize that the indoor instruction that took place prior to going outside was just as important as the outdoor experience. It was very helpful for students to hear about the abstract concepts first, and then have the clarifying activity outside. Another variation could have been to do the outdoor activity first as an advanced organizer or motivator, and then do the indoor instruction. My preference with this content, though, would be to frontload the abstractions and then use the outdoors to provide clarity.
This activity is a great example of how the outdoors can be used as a venue for instruction, not just as a source of content. We often think that going outside has to mean doing some type of analysis or investigation of nature. Although that’s certainly a valid use of the schoolyard, often going outside can provide a motivating change of pace and place just because we are in a different venue. The change of place can revitalize and refocus activities that have become overly routine indoors. Reading a story, having a class discussion or even practicing spelling words (with sidewalk chalk) are often approached with renewed energy and focus simply because of the outdoor venue.
Outdoor activities do not have to be lengthy. In the human bar graph example described above, Laura’s class was outside for only about 15-20 minutes. I feel strongly that the best use of the school grounds for instruction is to take students outside briefly to re-focus on a specific concept that is currently being developed indoors. The brief outdoor activity gives a change of pace and place and provides an opportunity to approach the concept from an experiential perspective.
December 3rd, 2014