Saturday, October 13, 2012

Walls And Ceilings

If you click on the "outdoor play" topic over there in the right-hand column and read from the bottom up, you'll find, spread out over more than 200 posts, a chronicle of our school's, and my personal, journey from inside to outside, an adventure and experiment that continues every single day.

Believe it or not, there was a time, only a couple years ago in fact, when our outdoor time was often limited to only about 20 minutes. Part of that, of course, was because our outdoor space was really just a slab of asphalt and a mud pit we called "the garden." That coupled with the ingrained idea that rain was something to be avoided, had made us into a fun, rowdy, emergent, play-based school, but one that largely confined itself to four walls and a ceiling.

It's a journey that started for me with the discovery of the first of my Australian "siblings," Jenny, of Let the Children Play fame, a teacher whose school backs onto a tract of bush land, and who is one of the world's leading advocates for outdoor play. It was from the seeds Jenny planted, that our "Little World" concept sprang up (another "topic" label that you might want to click, then read from the bottom up), which lead to our community coming together to truly transform our slab into something magical. It was from this initial learning experience that our current, magnificent outdoor classroom has emerged, a place that is continually evolving, and in which we now spend about 50 percent of our time (rain or shine). Our summer program doesn't use the indoors at all.

I devoured all the research to which Jenny linked, which lead to more data about the cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits and wonders of outdoor play. I was concerned at first that living here on the site of a former rain forest, with long, wet, cool winters, would make outdoor school too much of a challenge, until I discovered there were already thriving outdoor schools not only in our area, but also in places like Norway where the weather and looooong winter nights present far more of a climatological and astrological challenge that anything we face.

That is what got us to here, but now I've had the chance to see it with my own eyes: I now have a mountain of personal anecdotes that "prove" the data.

I am now convinced that walls and ceilings "do" something to young children: limit them in some way. I've now watched dozens of kids who tend to "bounce off the walls," immediately slow down and fall to the ground to study motes the moment we move outside. I've watched children who struggle to speak or interact with others, suddenly begin to joyfully talk and laugh and play with fresh air in their lungs.

Everyday as we move from indoors to outdoors I've felt the collective sigh of relaxation, the dissolution of tension, the feeling of freedom that comes over all of us the moment we moved from indoors to out. And I'm here to tell you, from personal experience, as a guy who now spends at least half of his waking hours outside: this does not just apply to young children.

I am convinced that outdoors is at least part of the "cure" for ADHD, sensory integration and autism spectrum issues, allergies, obesity, and the whole gamut of behavioral and health issues that challenge our children and schools. In many cases, I believe, walls and ceilings are the root cause of many of these problems. And if they don't cause them, they at least exacerbate them. This is a problem with schools, not with kids. I heard the other day that one of the biggest punishments a child can receive for "misbehavior" in Seattle Public Schools is to have a recess taken away. What insanity! That's like punishing an asthmatic by taking away oxygen!

Woodland Park is still on this journey. I can see a future that takes us outdoors more and more with each passing week and month, perhaps even to a time when we're only spending 20 minutes a day indoors. It's a journey upon which I hope you join us. It starts with but a single step: try starting with Little World and the rest will follow.

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Scott said...

Tom, I've so enjoyed seeing the development of your outdoor classroom. And I'm often envious of what happens there. Thanks for sharing your discoveries with us.

Kierna C said...

Love this post & your journey is so similar to my own, I now can't even understand HOW we stayed inside on rainy days. I think Jenny has been a big inspiration to many, but don't underestimat your influence too. I love watching your outdoor space in the new school evolve. Kierna

gutscheine zum ausdrucken said...

very good comment

Laura said...

:) I've found the most effective way to teach my children self-discipline, is to tell them to go outside and run around the cul-de-sac when they are being mean or annoying. I tell them that exercise will make it easier for them to control themselves and be nicer. It works almost every time.

Then yesterday I was getting angry and starting to yell at them, and my eldest says, "Mom I think you need to go for a run." My youngest pipes up, "or do some jumping jacks." So we all went out ran around in the rain, came back in, and felt much better.


The place is looking great Tom! A credit to all your hard work. Karen :)

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