Sunday, April 22, 2012

Learning Naturally

Outdoor learning is the name of the game at my center. We have an amazing array of possibilities linking classroom to playground. Our playhouses are cobbed. We have piping all around the fences so that we can attach a hose to any outlet for making wet sand and mud. Our shed, also cobbed, has a garden growing on its roof to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and a gutter system for dripping rain into a rain barrel! Our children are encouraged to get wet and dirty, not discouraged from it.

Last week we put out easels. We brought out paint, glue and water for the children to mix and encouraged them to collect natural materials to include in their art. Using natural materials in art is not new. When I was first aider for my daughter's Girl Scout troop we encouraged the girls to find natural materials to make centerpieces for the tables on camp-outs. Usually this consisted of a jumble of leaves and pinecones but it served its purpose: Natural beauty arranged as artistic expression. I was skeptical of the artistic worth of this enterprise but now I am coming to see how amazingly this practice encourages children to explore nature, satisfy their curiosity about the sensory qualities of sand, dirt, leaves, plants and sticks. It's sensory learning but more important it contributes to a sense of connection with nature.

The approach at our center blends the outdoor learning movement with Reggio-inspired teaching and learning quite "naturally". Which among our outdoor artists will grab hold of the idea and run with it? How will our teaching staff continue to provide opportunities for these particular children to realize their creative vision? These are liberating questions for teachers who are tired of inventing artificial learning activities with no relationship to a child's reality.

Our teaching is more labor-intensive than paper and pencil teaching. While we have cupboards to hold many different types of materials, including traditional buckets and shovels but also including tubing and pipes, we must haul many inside materials outside, such as paint and paper, brushes and paint cups. What we provide outside is also always an important question. Never satisfied with what we have, we look for better ways to provide the necessary environment for children to work for long periods of time building, creating, and exploring.

We meet daily to discuss who is doing what both inside and out. We don't always agree on how to go about things, but we come to consensus rather quickly. In early childhood, which spans children's development through age eight and therefore through third grade, can traditional schools meet the challenge of providing rich learning experiences through the natural world while using computers and textbooks at the same time? Can teachers collaborate to follow the child's lead? I believe so, and am sure someone will tell me who is already doing it. I am eager to hear from you!