Friday, June 04, 2010

Instead We Listened

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.

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Play for Life said...

I'm so happy to hear about your indoor/outdoor programing ideas Tom. We've run indoor/outdoor for years now where the children choose where they play and for how long. Outdoor play is not valued enough in some programs. We believe that walls should not be boundaries. Regardless of the weather and as long as children are provided with appropriate clothing I can't think of one learning experience we do inside that we can't do out, but I can think of many learning experience we do outside that we can't do in!
Donna :) :)

Scott said...

I continue to watch and learn from your outdoor "experiments." I think your kids are so fortunate to have a experimenting teacher.

Jason, as himself said...

The idea of an outdoor curriculum is interesting and so refreshing.

Michele @ The Hills are Alive said...

Re outdoor play - you need to take a look at this. Came across this Swiss blog mentioning their weekly "waldspielgruppe" or forest play group and read every word/devoured every picture with growing envy. Wow! What a lot of fun and adventure.

No snow in Qld alas but the outdoorsy part definately appeals.

Some inspiration for you perhaps

See here:

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Tom

Your comments echo those of many who start providing regular free access to outdoor spaces - children do become quieter and often more engaged in purposeful play. I find there is less "zoochosis" behaviour such as frantic running or pedalling on bikes round and round the outdoor space. Research shows that children need at least 45 mins uninterrupted time to allow deep sustained play to develop and grow.

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Cowgate U5 centre. This urban pre-school also runs Forest Kindergarten sessions. On a weekly basis they take children to a beautiful wildlife garden that's a 10 minute walk. It is also in the middle of a very urban area - above tourists from the Royal Mile can look down and see the children playing. Plans are afoot to considerably extend this opportunity too. So even in the middle of a concrete jungle, wild experiences can still happen that allow children lots of contact and play in and with nature.

In Scotland there is now and expectation that ALL the pre-school curriculum will be taught outdoors as well as indoors. Every subject, every experience and outcome. The reason being that research now suggests the quality of children's play and their health and wellbeing - cognitive, social, emotional, etc is significantly better outdoors. The more time outside, the greater the benefits. Why indoors? I'm not sure anymore!

I'm also involved in the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Forest Kindergarten pilot project. This is interesting in that when we carried out the feasibility study, we found that most urban pre-schools are within a 10 minute walk of greenspace. Never underestimate what is on one's doorstep!

Finally if any of your readers want to find out about the Swedish Forest School system then visit the resources page of my website (not blog) There's 3 downloadable case studies.

allie said...

What an exciting opportunity. I often walk by blocks here in Brussels that are simply filled with trees and think about the idea of putting an outdoor school right in the middle of a city. Trying it out this summer will be fantastic! The NW weather is usually quite good, too - but having the opportunity to be outside with boots and raincoats on those off rainy days will be great. Do it!