Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Learning At Full Capacity

There are few things that get under my skin more than the common knowledge that children need to spend time outside to "blow off steam." I know it's well intended, and the result is that children do get to be outside, but implied is that the real learning takes place within four walls; that outside is merely the empty calorie reward for eating a meal that's "good for you."

I think what we mean is that outside, as opposed to inside, is a good place for running, climbing, jumping, and shouting, and that's true. And that's what sucks about indoors: you don't get to do those things when you really need to in order to fully understand the objects, interactions, and ideas you're exploring. When we get outside, we're finally allowed to learn at full capacity, because in an outdoor classroom that isn't just climbers and slides, we get to add running, climbing, jumping, and shouting as necessary, without subtracting any of the other "indoor" learning tools.

Anyone who's spent time in this business, knows what I'm talking about when I discuss kids who bounce off the walls. I used to think they just needed to grow up, to learn some basic social skills, to calm down, but now I understand it's the fault of the walls which are simply in the way. I'm amazed at how often these children, the ones who can't abide more than a few seconds in a single place, who need to be constantly watched lest they knock down their friends or climb atop the cabinets, suddenly drop into a squat to make a deep study of motes the moment they are outside.

When we look at outdoor places designed for kids, we first notice the large features such as the swings, the trees, the slopes, the sandpits, and the slides, and it's important to have those things because large motor learning is vital to our intellectual, physical and spiritual education. But that's where we too often stop when we think of outdoors as just a place to blow off steam. Over the past few years, our community has come to realize that this is not enough, that there is simply nothing we do indoors that we can't do outdoors. 

We take our art outside daily, we have a workbench for tinkering, a garden, and, wonderfully, a space bestrewn with "loose parts." These can be anything really, from plastic figurines and florist marbles, to tree parts, rocks, lengths of rope, and wine bottle corks; things that live out there all the time. They might get buried in the sand for weeks or months, then resurface accidentally and surprisingly, then integrated naturally into whatever game is being played.

These loose parts are containers for carrying and sorting, parts of things that are broken, pieces from games or play sets that can no longer be used the way in which they were intended. Yesterday, for instance, a group of us were floating wooden letters in rainwater that had collected in one of our wagons. They had originally been part of a kind of alphabet stacking puzzle, but were frustrating indoors because a few of the letters were missing. Outside, they are floating islands named things like "G" or "I" or "P." Spontaneously, several of the kids started finding the letters that start their names, tossing them on the ground and standing on their own, eventually "walking the alphabet," not caring about the letters they couldn't find.

Our loose parts, in contrast to the idea of blowing off steam, are things that cause children to drop to their knees, to put their heads together, and to play stories.

Sometimes we make our own loose parts, like when we draw pictures on rocks with acrylic paint pens.

When they were dry, we piled them together near the garden.

They are now scattered about the place, waiting to be found again, perhaps even destined to be one day reassembled into a similar pile.

And sometimes our loose parts become part of our artwork or inventions.

Naturally, our loose parts sometimes go home in pockets as treasures found, but much of it is stuff that would have been thrown out anyway so it's easy come, easy go, not to mention the additions that arrive in pockets as treasures found elsewhere, more than making up for the subtractions.

We, of course, are still running, jumping, climbing, and shouting out here, but we're doing everything else as well, learning at full capacity.

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Deborah said...

This is the preschool I wish I attended as a child. I feel like I was jipped!

Anonymous said...


LeeanneA said...

Outside I see so many moments where the quiet kids suddenly command a conversation. The kid who never moves in the classroom runs, jumps, and rolls about. Choices to try new things becomes much easier. I wish I lived in a place where outside is the classroom year round.

KaleidoscopeSci said...

My daughter is in 3rd grade. She sings her math and needs to sway or move for reading. About the only thing she can "focus" on is art, because, well, her hands are in constant motion. Outside is freedom to her, and she learns the most amazing things when not tied to a desk. I'm thankful her school is one focused on outdoor time, with several hours spent exploring. Thank you for so perfectly stating something that should be obvious, but sadly isn't. Children learn by doing in their natural habitat, outdoors, in the unexpected.

Mullin Avenue Workshop said...

What a wonderful outdoor classroom you and you're community have created.
It's so great to see.
I especially like the outdoor moats, and of course the loose parts!

Aunt Annie said...

You just described the indigenous kids at one of my centres to a T. Bouncing off the walls indoors, but able to concentrate for ages outside. It's truly amazing to see how these children blossom and learn in what is, to them, their natural environment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Teacher Tom,
When I was a kid (from 6) my Dad, who had been a builder, took up farming for some years. This meant that odd bits and pieces of building supplies were loosely piled up behind our sheds.

My sister (4 years younger) and I would spend all day for days and days in a row playing there. It is very much like what you have described here. I often think back on it with very fond memories.
Now I have 4 girls (5-13) and our yard looks like your pictures above. Adults hate it and ask me why I don't clean it up! I have started calling it my creative yard, but now I will call it my "Full Capacity Learning Space!".
Thank you for articulating what I have known to be true was didn't know how to say it.
Ally <'v'>

Unknown said...

I want to try and recreate the outdoor play/learning space you have created for these kids. I have no doubt they *thrive* in that environment....I know I would (as an adult or when I was a child)!!

Unknown said...

A wonderful essay! Would love if you could come share it at our Outdoor Play Party tomorrow. (I so wish my kids went to your preschool.)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Nice piece, Tom. What a great start for youngsters and their impression of what school's all about!!