Learning Among The Trees

As my 16th year of teaching comes to an end, I have so many special memories of my first year at Rousseau. Maybe the cluster of memories that stand out the most though is from our time in the forest. From the end of September to the beginning of June, our students spent at least one hour — almost every day — among the trees. It didn’t matter if it was snowy, cold, rainy, muddy, or any combination of the above: we all dressed for the weather and made it out to this special place that changed all of us!

One more for good measure: a happy way to start the day! #teachersofinstagram #iteachk #ctinquiry

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I learned a lot from this time in the trees. On the first official day of summer holidays, I need to take this moment to reflect.

I learned that ALL children — even our youngest learners — are capable of supporting each other. I know that numbers are usually a concern when thinking about the Full-Day Kindergarten Program. Even with two adults in the room, how are we supposed to be there for everyone? The forest taught me that I needed to reframe my thinking. There may have only been a couple of adults in the room, but there were 33 little teachers that could support, encourage, and model for each other. We can all be “teachers.”

I learned that time outside — first thing in the morning — makes for a calmer time inside. While many students may be excited to come to school and eager to learn, other students find it hard to leave home. Maybe they miss their moms and dads. Maybe they had a disagreement to start the day and recovering from that is a challenge. Maybe saying goodbye to their siblings is harder than they anticipated. For whatever the reason, sometimes the start of the school day is a sad one … but that changes when we’re outside. Students can have some quiet moments with friends. They can run and play. They can sit and eat a snack, and calm down. They can all do what they need to self-regulate, and that’s what makes the forest truly special!

I learned that new relationships form in this special space. As the year went on, I loved seeing the friendships that occurred outside. While there were groups of students that always played together in the classroom, new interests emerged out in the forest, and with these different interests, came different connections. 

I learned that inquiry often begins in nature. My teaching partner, Paula, and I definitely saw this happening as the year progressed. At the beginning of June, Dr. Jean Clinton came to visit our Kindergarten teams at Rousseau, and on her visit, students found some bramble bushes. This led to an increased interest and lots of thinking around berries and plant growth.

I learned how much new vocabulary can be introduced and reinforced outside. The discussion around brambles (above) is a great example of that. This is where students learned the words “brambles” and “drupelets,” which they then used again when talking to us outside and sharing learning inside. Last summer, I attended an inservice through our Board, which spoke about the connection between vocabulary and reading success. What better way to develop vocabulary than out in nature!

I learned that the outdoors provides so many authentic reasons to read and write. This year, I saw the biggest growth in reading scores than I have ever seen in my teaching career. All of our Senior Kindergarten students learned how to decode — many far above grade level — and many of our Junior Kindergarten students did as well. Most of them learned all of the letter-names, and the majority of letter-sounds, and they did so even with all of our forest time. Why? There are many possible reasons for this growth, but I think that the outdoors made a difference. Our time outside provided so many meaningful reasons to read and write, and students began to see writing as a valuable way to communicate their thinking.

I learned that problem solving happens naturally outside, and children are capable of solving problems in incredible ways. The type of problem solving varies in an outdoor space. Sometimes it’s a building problem. Sometimes it’s a math problem. Sometimes it’s an environmental problem. Sometimes it’s a movement problem. And sometimes it’s a problem of how to get clean. But when we trust kids and give them time to problem solve, their solutions are often quite incredible. It’s as they problem solve that they also learn about the importance of perseverance, and for many of our students, they learned this lesson outside. 

I learned that creativity can happen the most in this outdoor space. We don’t bring items with us out to the forest, so students have to figure out what to do with sticks, rocks, pinecones, flowers, leaves, vines, and trees. This is where “wonderful” happens. I think about the Four Frames of the Kindergarten Program Document, and there is certainly some incredible “innovating” that happens outside.

I learned that if we want others to see this outdoor learning as valuable, then we have to see it as valuable. We have to document it. We have to share it. We have to reflect on it, and make plans for next steps based on what we see. We also need to celebrate it! Outdoor learning is not just recess. It is often “free play,” but as we notice and name this learning, provide new vocabulary, and reinforce the reading, writing, math, and thinking skills that happen naturally in this space, this learning is taken to a whole new level. 

I’ve learned to become a better listener, observer, thinker, and questioner, thanks to this time outside. There are many things that I love about this year, but this time in the forest, changed me. What have you learned thanks to outdoor learning? As our Board works towards meeting its reading target for next year, I wonder if we have to look at the role that outdoor learning can play in this. How might outdoor learning benefit all of us: from emotional well-being to academic success? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories!


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