Outdoor Learning: Curiosity, Creativity, Community at Work

Gretchen Hathaway
Given the treasure of our 75-acre campus, turning to the outdoors as the safest way to learn together has been a natural adaptation for Renbrook this year. Undoubtedly our location on Avon Mountain has been essential to our successful effort to hold school in person. But more than that, learning from nature has been a vital element of Renbrook’s philosophy and practice from the outset and is embedded in the school’s philosophy and traditions.        
In “The Story of a School,” a pamphlet published in 1985 to commemorate Renbrook’s 50th anniversary, Florence Greene, the first headmistress, wrote: “From the beginning, the school was dedicated to teaching the fundamentals thoroughly, in an ordered environment.” Among the fundamentals for a student to master, she included, “Also he must be trained to look for the beauty around him—the wildflowers by the path up the hill or the brilliant glow of the sunset as he took off his skates.” Heads of school since have affirmed and cultivated this element of a full, humane education.        Twenty years ago, the Spring 2000 issue of the Renbrook News, as our magazine was called then, was entitled “Our Campus Classroom.” Articles by teachers detailed the intensive use of our campus in the teaching of all levels and all subjects, and many of those teachers—Steve Arnold, Howard Wright, Chris Ladd, and Toby Goodrich—are still on hand. Stories of Renbrook alums involved in environmental research, art, and activism testified to their influence.        

The benefits of outdoor learning are famously demonstrated in the Scandinavian countries and Germany. An article in the New York Times described the surge of interest in outdoor education in the U.S. sparked by the pandemic and cited research supporting its value. “Ironically, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, as tragic as it is, has dramatically increased public awareness of the deep human need for nature connection, and is adding a greater sense of urgency to the movement to connect children, families, and communities to nature,” said Richard Louv, a journalist and the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.      

Other articles in the Times and the Washington Post have described outdoor schools proliferating in Denmark, Norway, and Cape Cod. And a solid body of academic research details the validity of incorporating outdoor exploration and play in young children’s education. “Outdoor learning, though, is not a wood nymph fantasy; the body of evidence suggesting the ways it benefits students, younger ones in particular, is ever-growing.” 

Here at Renbrook, in the 2020–2021 school year, the campus has been brimming with outdoor activity. Early Learning Center (ELC) and Lower School students take weekly hikes on the seven marked trails on campus. Renbrook’s first official Mountain Day ended with an all-school hike—kindergarteners through eighth-graders snaking up and down the ridge, over rocks and rivulets, through fallen leaves, and over fallen trees.  

Traditional classes have taken place under falling autumn leaves. Rolling whiteboards, laptops, Adirondack chairs, and of course books can make any spot a classroom. Science students carry camp chairs on their backs to various settings to study the geology, botany, and zoology of our environment. ELC students array themselves on a motley collection of portable seats to listen to stories as breezes blow their hair. The skill-building activities required to advance students through the curriculum have simply shifted into the fresh air. And students of all ages benefit from the movement and changes of scene. As Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Head, points out, outdoor classes will continue after the pandemic is over.  

But true outdoor education, learning from nature herself, has expanded as well. This is particularly evident in the ELC with its core of learning through play and sensory experience. When I visited outside the ELC with Kelly Bird, ELC Director, we were surrounded by children playing in their “mud kitchens,” trooping off for a hike, scrabbling under our chairs for dinosaurs they had left there.  

Ms. Bird explains, “COVID has given us a gift in prompting us to use our campus more intentionally. We know that in the early years more movement means more learning; getting out of our cozy classrooms magnifies the benefits. Being outside creates memories for little kids; their learning goes deeper because it’s more multi-sensory. Also, the children are learning visceral lessons in interdependence. When their days are spent in nature, both their respect for the environment and their dependence on each other grow.” 

“Why didn’t we always do it outside?!” ELC teachers exclaim. Each class has its own outdoor space, bridging indoor lessons to outdoors, using natural, found objects for counting and grouping, for example. Direct instruction continues, but being outdoors takes it above and beyond. Children learn by direct observation. Question of the day: What’s the difference between a spider and a beetle? Imagination is stimulated in the natural environment. “Children have a lot of agency,” Ms. Bird says. “They have more room for their wonder and wondering.” 

What happens in cold weather? They wear more clothing! “Experiencing all kinds of weather is another opportunity for observation and feeling at home in nature. We go out in the rain, though not in thunder and lightning or when it’s below freezing,” says Ms. Bird.  

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