Outdoor Schools. Kid-Tested. Walt Whitman Approved.

Walt WhitmanThis morning I opened my email and was greeted by a link to an article profiling what is commonly being referred to as an "outdoor school" or “nature preschool.” We usually blog about issues concerning Educational Leadership and Educational Technology, but I liked it so much that I felt it deserved a tribute and a repost. Here’s the short version:

Welcome to Blue Heron, a New Hampshire “all-weather” preschool. Here students spend as much of the day as possible—regardless of the weather—outside at the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center.  

In this classroom, students set the agenda and choose the activities. Perhaps they’ll stack some sticks, run around, take a tour with a geologist, or just sit down on a blanket and get lost in a good book. If they find a log and want to turn it over, are they told they’ll get hurt or dirty? Nope. They roll it over and see what the world looks like from below; then they dutifully roll it back the way that they found it.

The activities may be in flux, but the central tenant of the philosophy of the outdoor school never wavers: Students, not teachers, set the agenda. If an activity goes off the rails, teachers are there to redirect, intervene and turn the situation into a teachable moment.

It’s true that the concept has started to catch on, but it’s not new. The idea originated in Scandinavia in the 1960s and then migrated to the United Kingdom, Germany and Southeast Asia before landing in the U.S.

Skeptics of the outdoor school system might be reluctant to turn their kids outdoors in the dead of winter, but surprisingly, a 1997 study of the Scandinavian schools using it found that students had 5 percent fewer absences due to sickness than those in traditional schools. The study also found that students showed an increase in concentration and motor function.

Student Studying in NatureReading all of this brings to mind what British Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Clark said in the 1990s: “Having any ideas about how children learn, or develop, or feel, should be seen as a subversive activity.” Was he branding “subversive” a noble attribute? Whether or not Clark truly believed that educational theorists should approach learning “subversively,” I don’t know. If he did, I think there’s some wisdom (perhaps unintended) in his statement.

New ideas create tension and threaten to undermine the stability of the “tried and true.” They also lead us, as Richard Baily suggests in the preface of Loris Malaguzzi and the Reggio Emilia Experience, “to question the common sense presumptions of educational practices.” And these common sense presumptions often “hide numerous contestable concepts” that should be contested.

Whether or not “all-weather," outdoor schools “work,” or how exactly they impact student achievement may require more substantive research—but I certainly like the spirit of it all and can’t help but be reminded of something Walt Whitman once said:

“A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.”  

If you are interested in Educational LeadershipProfessional Development for Teachers or Educational Technology, you might find my blog at Marygrove College to be worth checking out here.

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Tags: development, educational, for, leadership, nature, outdoor, professional, schools, teachers

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