We've noodled around the idea of a summer camp at Woodland Park every year I've been here, but it's always come down to me choosing time off over a pay-check, usually a decision made without much of what could be called noodling.
But this summer is different. We embarked on a new era at Woodland Park this year, a great community experiment, one in which every family in our school has had a hand. I'm inspired like I've never been before and I'm looking forward to this summer as an opportunity to tinker around with the concepts and skills we'll need to understand and master before we can confidently take the next big step.
In a nutshell, our little commie cooperative is on the road toward becoming an urban outdoor preschool. There is a growing trend toward forest, adventure, and other outdoor schools, both here in the US and around the world, but what characterizes most of those endeavors is their adjacency to large tracts of land in which to enact an outdoor curriculum. Since it's unlikely we're going sell our houses en mass and move to the country, and if we still want to offer our children the benefits of an outdoor school, it's going to have to be done within the confines our our little courtyard and garden.
Our first step came this winter when we unanimously agreed as a community to revamp our outdoor space, followed by a mid-year agreement to temporarily transform our curriculum to put the children outdoors for about half our school day. It would be a big deal for any school to change its curriculum in mid-stream like that, but even more so in a cooperative where it's not just the children who will be outside rain-or-shine, but their parents as well. And if you read my post from yesterday, you'll know that there is more rain than shine up here in the Great Northwest, so it's not a decision to be made lightly.
The next step was again an unanimous springtime vote, based on our experience, to permanently change our curriculum to put a greater emphasis on outdoor education.
The main reason I wanted to host a 3-day-a-week summer program at Woodland Park is to continue this experiment of moving toward becoming an outdoor school, our at least an indoor-outdoor one. After our first full week of turning off the heat and throwing open the doors, I'm more excited than ever.
We've had a decent week from a weather perspective with one coolish, drizzly day sandwiched between two pleasant mornings, one of which was even sunny. The real challenge, of course, will come in attempting it in mid-winter when it's windy, rainy, dark, cold, and has been that way for months. I'm not saying we can't do it. In fact, I've had several discussions this week with parents who are all-in for a year-round rain-or-shine indoor-outdoor curriculum, but it's nice to be getting our feet wet, so to speak, as the weather is turning dryer and warmer.
If I was to sum-up our experience so far in a single word, it would be quiet.
That's a word that has never been used to describe Woodland Park, at least not since the advent of Teacher Tom and his insensitivity to decibels. It's not that bad, really, but I do start each year by reminding our parent assistant teachers that my brain tends to interpret loudness from children as joy, so if things are getting out of hand, the other adults may need to draw my attention to it. Making this "quiet" all the more astounding is the fact that we've enrolled 26 kids in this first session, a giant class by our standards. (This is another of our summer experiments. We're working on the theory that a cooperative school, with it's surplus of assistant teachers, can effectively accommodate larger enrollments than traditional schools.)
Of course, the fact that the kids are now spread out over a much larger space, and the absence of walls and ceiling off which to bounce our squeals and screams, contributes to this phenomenon, but as parent educator Dawn and I stood together observing the play on Tuesday, we also saw each and every child, from the youngest 2-year-old, to the most sophisticated and experienced 6-year-old, quietly, purposefully engaged in their play. (This is yet a third of our summer experiments: an expanded age-range in our multi-aged classroom.)
This "quiet" is something we also noticed during the regular school year once we moved more of our play outdoors. I've come to understand that bursts of sound from young children may well be sounds of joy, but sustained loudness might just be there to fend off boredom.
As Dawn and I stood there sharing observations, I recalled a day earlier this year, before the playground transformation, when Annabelle mounted to the top step and started screaming. It wasn't a scream of pain or emotion, but just a scream. I took is as an experiment with her voice. One-by-one her classmates joined her until they were all clutched together on the top of the steps, like an impromptu choir, screaming at the top of their lungs. This went on for at least 20 minutes, the bulk of what served as our outdoor time back then. They were just screaming, not singing, not chanting, just standing together and screaming.
At the time, I was proud that they had, all on their own, found something to do together, but now, looking back, it's hard not to hear it as a scream for something more than pavement, slides and monkey bars.
It would have been easy to shush them, but instead we listened.