Scaling The Mountain: Free Play In The Time Of COVID

This morning, I started my day as I always do by reading Doug Peterson‘s daily blog post. Today’s post focused on the fact that Ontario schools are being asked to teach students outside. Doug’s post shares a series of tweets and reflections on what might be possible outside, but also on the limits: from wireless signal issues to material problems (you can’t bring a full class on networked computers outside) to room arrangement. Reading the post, I was reminded of just how different kindergarten is from the other grades, and what this might look like for us.

You just have to read our daily blog posts to see that the outdoors plays an important role in our classroom. We start our day outside every day.

  • When it’s raining, we go out.
  • When it’s snowing, we go out.
  • When it’s a skating rink and there are worries about the slippery ice, we go out.
  • When it’s freezing cold, we actually celebrate the -19 with the windchill, as we can still go outside.

About the only things stopping us are thunderstorms and temperatures below -20 … but we always hope for a stop to the lightening and/or a slight warm up, so that we can still go out. Not only do we go outside each day, but we stay outside for a long time. We basically spend the first 1/3 of our day (about 2 hours) outdoors.

My teaching partner, Paula, and I feel very lucky that we have a huge space out back that we can use each day. We’re not the only ones using this empty field space, and our kids know that with COVID, they have to stay away from those children in other cohorts. Thankfully, we’re usually the only class that starts the day outside — especially if it’s chillier, and definitely if it’s raining — so we often have the run of the playground before others appear. Then cries of “big kids,” have students relocating so that we can still play outside, but in a different space.

Recently, our students have figured out that “the mountain” — a name that they’ve given to a steep hill in the corner of our property — is almost always unused by other classes. It has become their favourite place to go. While the height terrifies me, a student is always there to support me, and it provides just enough risky play to make things wonderful for all of them.

The other day, Paula and I were taken by the incredible free play that happened outside. While the posts below are longer videos, they really do speak to students owning their learning. The two of us sat back in awe of what we were observing. As you’ll see, we did get involved at times to question/probe, suggest extensions, and even provide a few mini-lessons in the midst of the great outdoors. But we also gave students the free play that we think they all need right now, in a space that was most safe for all of them and for us.

Springtime really does bring out the best in outdoor learning, as seen through the incredible snail investigations that dominated our time inside and outside yesterday.

With nothing more than clipboards and a pencil case, every item that our young learners need to count, to measure, to estimate, to create, to story tell, to build, to investigate, and to problem solve can be found in our huge playground space. Besides a trip to the washroom and a sink for some hand washing, we could spend our day outside. Many of our children would probably love if we did, and this might even reduce stress around wrecked creations and unfinished projects.

But with recess time for the rest of the school, our play space would be significantly reduced at least twice a day. Less area, more noise, and more congestion might increase behaviour and allow for far less distancing — even when our distancing measures might not need to be as stringent as they are inside. Tarps and temporary shelters might also be required on extremely rainy days. While we shouldn’t need to worry about temperatures below -20 at this point in the school year, thunderstorms are still a possibility, and they make things more challenging. We could look at coming out again at another time in the day, but there are more students that use this field space later on. We also can’t be outside at the very end of the day when cohorts come out for dismissal. Once again, Paula and I are weighing the benefits of more outdoor play with the drawbacks that come from multiple transitions and a change in the consistent routine that make our children so very comfortable right now.

With warmer weather on the way and the recent news about outdoor learning, will the playground be used more frequently when we return from the April Break? If so, how will our students respond? What impact might this have on the independence and Self-Reg that we’ve seen outdoors? Outdoor learning will always make us smile, but we can live without the need for wifi, thankfully our outdoor classroom space is so much bigger and freer than an arrangement of tables and chairs, and our material needs are limited. We realize that this isn’t true for everyone. What might be possible for you, and what have you considered? I wonder if educators might share some of their ideas and resources for different grades. If ever there was a time for crowdsourcing, it might be now.


4 thoughts on “Scaling The Mountain: Free Play In The Time Of COVID

  1. What I love is that I can see both the academic and the free play in your posts, and, academically the students are doing quite well. Probably BECAUSE of the amount of outside time, although causality is hard to prove πŸ™‚

    • Thanks Eileen! Both Paula and I truly believe that the outdoors and the free play support the academic achievement (and our kids are doing quite well), but as you said, proving this is harder. I would love to dig into this research more as a professional inquiry if I could figure out exactly how. I think that Paula would as well.


  2. Thanks for taking my blog post and running with it, Aviva. I was predicting your response as I was writing it. One of the luxuries that you do have is a curriculum that is inclusive of play and exploration. I would suggest that the outdoors may well be better than indoors for many of those things. I know that your class can be obsessed with bugs at times.

    Unfortunately, I think, the Minister’s message was more political than pedagogical in its target. In the older grades and secondary school, it isn’t as neat a fit for the most part. Having said that, I remember a couple of university classes that we moved outside when the focus was on discussion and working with others. The outdoors was far more suitable than twisting around in your theatre style seating.

    • Strangely Doug, this is another comment of yours that ended up directly in my Trash. How does that happen?! I’m glad to have found it though, and you’re certainly right that our class does love bugs at times. I wonder if any will explore them when at home.

      I have no doubt that the Minister’s message was more political than anything else, but I would love to hear if educators in different grades thought of additional ways to get their kids outside. I feel as though this might still be important for us come September.


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