Outdoor learning (aka Forest Kindergarten, or Nature Learning) has been extensively researched for outcomes in concentration, impulse inhibition and delayed gratification within young children.
Unexpectedly, outdoor learning is also linked to improved cognitive development – perhaps not a surprise when we stop to consider how mentally draining the onslaught from screens, smart phones, and even the buzz of fluorescent lights can be!
Ava, age 4, has been attending an outdoor-based daycare for over a year. For up to 7 hours a day, Ava joins her classmates in the garden or forest. Like any other classroom, she engages in math; writing and drawing; playing house and participates in a group for stories and songs.
“I need teamwork!” Ava yells as loud as she can, standing on top of the ten-foot Muddy Mountain. “I feel scared!” For her classmates at Forest Kindergarten, the mountain is a treasured spot to climb up and run down.
“Ava, I hear you feel scared! How can I help? Who do you need teamwork from?”, one of the educators calls back to Ava.
“Ummm, Daniel! Daniel, I am scared I will slip. Hold my hand!” Ava has learned that while teachers can be a resource for her, so are her peers.
Daniel stares up the mountain at Ava and thinks. “Okay!” he carefully climbs up, and, once reaching the top, grabs her hand. “Come on.” Hand in hand, they run down the mountain.
When working for extended periods of time outside, children learn more about interdependence in an authentic, organic way. Climbing under a log or pulling the snack wagon requires children to work together. Responsibilities are taken seriously – after all, if the snack wagon isn’t pulled along, there will be no snacks. Instead, it will be left in the wagon, half a kilometre away.
Outside, children quickly learn that if they don’t respect the natural boundaries that Mother Nature offers (for example, puddles that are deeper than a rain boot), outcomes are not up for negotiation. While ever-changing, the outdoors offers the chance for children to understand limits: you simply can’t negotiate with a mud puddle oozing into your rain boot because it was too deep.
Educators use the environment as a way to promote reasoning and communication. On one particular morning, the children focused on a tree that was blocking a trail. How did it fall? They respond with suggestions: gravity. squirrels, wind, an ax, or maybe even a dragon! The preschoolers then set out to measure the fallen tree and then write a letter to the city, informing them that a very large tree was blocking a hiking path and that a chainsaw was needed to help. Or perhaps a large digger truck.
Public schools have been slow to offer outdoor programs in Canada, but Sooke School District on Vancouver Island has recently launched an outdoor-based kindergarten, and the Victoria School District is piloting similar programs in two James Bay schools. In the Greater Vancouver Area, North Vancouver has launched an outdoor classroom and Maple Ridge has opened an Environmental school.
Byline: Pamela Wallberg is a mother of a very muddy two-year old and frequently digs worms out of her daughter’s coat pockets. She is also the coordinator at Alderwood House School (www.alderwoodhouse.com) and researches children’s social-emotional development in a variety of contexts.