The goal of Take Me Outside: An Early Years, Rural/Urban Environmental Inquiry was to incorporate the natural setting seamlessly into our kindergarten programs. This was not to be seen as an add-on or “special” activity, but rather as a part of our regularly scheduled activities such as library and gym. Our goal was to extend our learning to the outdoors – one class in an urban setting and one class in a rural setting. We used the outdoors – the schoolyard, the community and adjacent park/wooded areas – as natural extensions of our kindergarten classrooms. Every week, students were outside for two- to 100-minute blocks to encourage student-directed, educator-supported environmental inquiry.
Student safety and self-awareness were paramount to the success of our outdoor experiences. Safety walks and discussions were conducted at the beginning of each outdoor experience. Environmental stewardship was encouraged – being respectful of the space and the living things that make the outdoors their home. Weatherproof outerwear (Muddy Buddies) were provided to each child and extra footwear, mittens and hats were available as needed.
Megan Turner McMillan, OCT
Algoma District School Board
Jane Vienneau, OCT
Algoma District School Board
Rachel Laurenti, OCT
Algoma District School Board
Ashley Brason, RECE
Algoma District School Board
Rachel Bouchard, RECE
Algoma District School Board
Professional Learning Goals
- Release of responsibility – allowed the children to direct their learning
- Allowed students to take risks
- Increased flexibility in our thinking and scheduling
- Challenged our own beliefs about what learning sounds like, looks like
- Embraced the outdoors ourselves – for some of the team members, this was a new experience
- Articulated the value of our outdoor program to the school community in that it supports and considers the whole child – their academic, social, emotional, physical and spiritual needs
- Collaborated with other educators who are passionate about outdoor learning
- Worked with the new kindergarten document – saw how our program fitted in all of the Four Frames and how it lent itself to the creation of Learning Stories for the Communication of Learning
- Increased collaboration between the teacher/ECE team
Activities and Resources
Our team met in early October to discuss scheduling and goal setting. We decided that each site team would schedule outdoor learning two to three times per week for 100-minute blocks of time. We also set up a tentative schedule for three additional team meetings. We kept in contact casually throughout the year, sharing interesting articles, websites and resources that supported the value of outdoor learning.
We thought that it would be valuable for the educators from each site to visit one another mid-year to observe the students engaged in their outdoor learning environments. These site visits took place in late March and early April. These site visits and observations proved to be invaluable to the entire team. The children were very excited to see the photos and videos taken of the other outdoor learning environments. We wished that we had planned for the students to visit each site to experience the different outdoor environments.
The team met in early May to reflect on the successes and challenges of our project and to work on the final report.
We purchased a class set of Muddy Buddy weatherproof suits and two outdoor blankets for one site and several pair of weatherproof pants for the other site to add to their existing set of weatherproof suits. We also purchased extra boots and mittens for each site for those students who occasionally came unprepared for outdoor learning. We purchased touchscreen gloves for the educators to use in the cold weather as well.
The educator resources that were budgeted for were not ordered as each school site had them as part of their professional resource collection.
- The scheduled time of day for outdoor learning changed during the course of the year for one team as the instructional lead teacher that supported the class had a timetable change – this impacted the days of the week and length of time that was then spent in the outdoors
- The weather, specifically the amount of snowfall, impacted the area of the schoolyard that was accessible to the students – it became too difficult to get to the woods for several months, so we had to be creative with engaging in inquires closer to the school
- Documenting in the outdoors with technology in the cold winter temperatures was often unpredictable
- Accessibility of washrooms – even though the students were reminded before they left the school, washroom emergencies would result in one less adult supporting the remaining students
- Caring for the weatherproof outdoor wear for a class of 29 students was a challenge for one team as their outdoor environment was much more muddy and wet and the space within the school was limited on which to hang them up
- Putting on/taking off the Muddy Buddies would have become easier and therefore less time-consuming for the students at one of the sites if they had been worn more routinely
- Scheduling outdoor learning within the timetable of a K-4 school with approximately 700 students was challenging – taking into consideration release time, nutrition breaks, supervision, educator lunch breaks and the requirement to be back in the school 30 minutes prior to dismissal to allow for end of the day changes
- Questions from other educators/families regarding the participation of one class and not the other(s) in such a project came up and needed to be addressed
Enhancing Student Learning and Development
- We observed a huge improvement in student collaboration and co-operation both indoors and outdoors
- Increase in stamina over the course of the school year – particularly with the urban students
- Ability to self-regulate and to be more self-aware
- Empathy towards living things – this was transferred to the classroom as creatures (e.g., spiders, crickets) were rescued and placed outdoors
- Environmental stewardship – cleaning up the yard, recycling and reusing materials in the classroom, leaving the dandelions alone so that the bees can collect the nectar, caring for all things natural (i.e., using wood for building that has fallen naturally rather than tearing limbs from the living trees, respecting that the outdoors is home to many living creatures and that we need to leave/return creatures to their natural habitat)
- Leadership – students taking charge of their own learning, taking the lead in a group project
- Confidence – feeling comfortable in the outdoors when they were not very familiar with this (particularly noticeable with the urban students)
- Curiosity – wondering, asking questions and then looking for answers, forming theories and testing them out
- Imagination – what to do when there aren’t any toys provided
- Children learned to play that did not know how to
- Innovation and invention – using found/familiar materials in new ways
- Risk-taking – trying something new in a safe and supportive environment (i.e., climbing a tree)
- Problem-solving – building stable structures, moving materials from one location to another, how to get up into the tree they wished to climb
- Spatial awareness and safety – taking a safety walk along the perimeter of the outdoor classroom, holding saplings when others are walking behind, walking in the woods rather than running, keeping others in view while exploring, listening for the gathering signal (howl in one outdoor environment)
- Enhancement of the senses – using all the senses to describe experiences
- Gross and fine motor skill development
- Oral language development – describing experiences, vocabulary development, conversation skills (particularly in the French Immersion program site)
- Reflection of their learning – students were able to think about their thinking/learning (metacognition) after reviewing the photos and videos that were taken in the outdoor learning environment
- Algoma District Nature Network – evening site visits for Early Learning Educators in the community (daycare, schools, college educators)
- Invitation to other classrooms in the schools to learn alongside the students and educators in the outdoor learning environment
- ADETFO Early Years Facebook Page
- Interested parties in outdoor learning in our community have been given our names as contacts by others who have heard about our project
- One team presented at the North American Association for Environmental Educators Annual Conference in Madison Wisconsin in October sharing some of the goals of our project within the parameters of their presentation
- Sharing with parents and administration through documentation panels, newsletters, digital portfolios and visits to outdoor learning spaces
- Creation of Nature 150 iMovie – 150 different photos of how nature was incorporated into the kindergarten program at one site in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday
Our team believes that our Take Me Outside project was a huge success. The Kindergarten Program document states, “In the Kindergarten program, learning in the outdoors is included as part of the instructional day, and the educators play an active role, engaging with children in an inquiry stance as they play, explore, and learn together outside the classroom.” The outdoors did become a natural extension of our classrooms and our students embraced the opportunities to direct their learning in the outdoor setting. Outdoor learning was part of our weekly schedules and the students came to expect that this would take place just as any other activity would. The students were not the only ones that were doing the learning. Many of their inquiries required research and the educators were learning just as much about the topic of interest and local environment as the students. The students were always fascinated to discover that “the teachers didn’t know and had to find out just like them!” The Kindergarten Program document further states, “Outdoor spaces offer valuable learning opportunities, and natural settings can inspire the kind of thinking, learning, leadership, and innovation that may be inhibited in children in the classroom but that once revealed, can be incorporated back into the classroom environment.” We were able to encourage and support the inquiry stance with our students – noticing, wondering, predicting, testing, hypothesizing and communicating. We asked open-ended questions to further their inquires. The educator teams were able to use many examples from our outdoor experiences when creating learning stories for each of the four frames of the Communication of Learning template. We often wonder what opportunities might have been lost for our students this year if we had not embarked on this journey of outdoor learning. Even though the project has officially come to an end, each site team plans to continue with their outdoor learning schedule for the remainder of the school year and into the future. We want to ensure that our students experience all kinds of learning environments so that they may reach their full potentials.
Classroom iPads were used to document and share student learning. Each site team created electronic portfolios for their students, with one site team sharing these portfolios directly with the parents. Many parents commented how much they appreciated being able to see photos and view videos of their children in action. These were often springboards for conversations at home about “what did you do at school today?”
We anticipated that there would be a difference in how the urban and rural students reacted to outdoor learning. This difference was observed in the students’ initial attitudes towards the outdoors. The rural students seemed to be more comfortable in the outdoors from the onset of the project. Their transition into outdoor learning was minimal. This was not the case for the urban students. We theorize that this may be partly due to the inaccessibility of unstructured outdoor time and space for the urban students. The urban students appeared to be less self-aware when being in the outdoor learning environment. This we surmised was from their lack of experience. Things that the rural students seemed to know naturally, the urban students needed to be taught. We are pleased to note that by the end of the project there were fewer differences. Both groups of students welcomed the opportunities that their unique outdoor environments offered them.
We anticipated that the outdoor sessions would have resulted in calmer and more focused children for the remainder of the school day. This was not always the case, particularly early in the year. The students in both sites were tired and hungry when they came in from outdoor learning. Outdoor learning resulted in increased appetites! The students did build up their stamina over the course of the school year. We would not say, however, that their outdoor learning days were more calm and focused than any other days in kindergarten. We could say that the students were more collaborative and better able to solve problems in the classroom by the end of the school year. We attribute this in part to their outdoor experiences.
We were grateful to the support of our administration and our families during the course of our project. They definitely demonstrated a growth mindset! They believed in us and trusted that learning was happening in the outdoors. Our students’ enthusiasm for learning and our enthusiasm for teaching was contagious!
Natural Curiosity: Building Children’s Understanding of the World Through Environmental Inquiry – A Resource for Teachers
Discovering Nature With Young Children by Ingrid Chalufour and Karen Worth
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
Teaching in Nature’s Classroom: Core Principles of Garden-Based Education by Nathan Larson
Technology Rich Inquiry-Based Research – Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE
Natural Start Alliance: North American Association for Environmental Education
Article “Kindergarten, Naturally” by Timothy D. Walker
Article “Early-Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors” by Andrea Mills
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