Outdoor learning, not just a pandemic product, persists

  • Roz Hanchett leads a lesson at Robin's Nest Nature Preschool in 2019. Outdoor classrooms became a pandemic necessity and some locations plan on expanding their outdoor offerings. Monadnock Ledger-Transcript file

  • Students at Robin's Nest Nature Preschool during a visit from Harris Center naturalists in 2018. Photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/20/2021 4:09:50 PM

Outdoor classrooms and nature-based schools picked up new followers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the enthusiasm is continuing beyond the necessities of the pandemic. New outdoor classroom enterprises are underway at Peterborough Elementary School, and a new nature preschool is set to open in Peterborough this September, while the lessons learned during the pandemic bolstered Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool.

The pandemic stepped up outdoor class time

The successes of outdoor learning this fall encouraged the Peterborough Elementary School PTO to fund more permanent outdoor learning opportunities, PTO Vice President Mackenzie Nichols said. Even prior to the pandemic, ConVal had been looking into outdoor classrooms for all the District’s elementary schools, PTO president Denise Zimmer said. The PTO decided to use the momentum from this past fall and pursue more permanent outdoor learning options, rather than wait for the district-wide initiative to make it into the budget, Zimmer said.

The PTO is currently fundraising for a durable sun shade and an outdoor whiteboard for what Nichols hopes is the first of multiple outdoor learning spaces on school grounds.

“My son would come home daily being very excited,” this fall, attending kindergarten outside under tents, Nichols said. “He is in his element when he runs around in the backyard, and plays, and gets to explore.” More time spent outside during school hours seemed to suit him well, Nichols said, and she liked it too. “As a parent, I’ve always struggled with wanting public school and also the outdoor learning experience,” she said. Outdoor classes seem to allow kids a little more playtime between activities, and more freedom with their masks when they can distance themselves outside, she said. The pandemic presented an opportunity to “trial run” outdoor learning for educators that may have never attempted it, Nichols said, and it was apparently successful. PES teachers continue to bring students outside to eat lunch or for health class, but by choice now, rather than requirement. “That’s great to see,” she said.

PES teachers provided their preferences and priorities for outdoor learning spaces earlier this year, Nichols said, and principal Larry Pimental was “a huge driving force” in the ongoing outdoor initiatives.

Future outdoor learning will look very similar to the way things went this fall, except with more permanent structures than tents, and the PTO as a funding source, which means no impacts on taxpayers, Nichols said. The first outdoor classroom will have grass underfoot, a more natural and less expensive option than a concrete slab, she said. A durable sun shade will be attached to a permanent base and removed each winter, Nichols said. Teachers preferred outdoor learning spaces close enough to the building so they could easily bring any necessary materials outside, and out of sight of the playground to cut down on distractions, co-chair of the initiative Michaela Balcombe said. “Getting out in the fresh air is good for everybody,” she said.

Even schools with well-established outdoor curriculum had to make changes for the pandemic. It was easier for Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool students and staff to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic than most other schools, founder Roz Hanchett said, since they were already accustomed to learning outdoors. That said, they took their commitment to the next level this year. Students spent just 10 hours inside through the entire school year so far, Hanchett said last Monday.

The school supplemented their regular setup with a big platform tent for rain events, constructed a fire pit, and worked with Peterborough’s Health Officer to arrange a suitable outdoor toilet setup. “It was cold, but it was a doable winter,” she said. “Parents do a great job dressing their kids for the weather, and the fire pit really helps,” she said. Hanchett keeps a stash of extra clothes on hand for students as well, she said.

“Everything we learn this year will make it easier for next year,” Hanchett said, and that they will “definitely” try to spend the same amount of time outside even as the pandemic eases. “It’s easier than it seems, really,” she said. Using the outdoors as a home base helps financially, too, as it allowed them to turn down the heat and cut other overhead costs, she said.

Nature preschools are in high demand

Robin’s Nest Nature Preschool enrolls between 30 and 40 kids and has a lengthy waitlist, Hanchett said, as current students and their siblings take priority, and some students start at 18 months old. Is there room for more nature-focused schools? “I highly encourage other people to do it if they can,” she said.

Sarah Chadzynski of Lyndeborough took that encouragement to heart after her oldest son had a “wonderful” experience at Robin’s Nest. A little over a year ago, Chadzynski bought property on Elm Hill Road in Peterborough, where she hopes to formally open a nature preschool this September. There’s a clear desire and need for outdoor learning in the Monadnock region, she said, evident in the strong enrollment among schools with nature programming. Chadynski’s goal is to provide ever-more access to the community and support like-minded educators, rather than competing, she said.

Outdoor learning and play may have been only way for kids to safely socialize this year, but there are plenty of other benefits to learning outside, particularly for preschoolers, Chadzynski said. Outdoor learning engages all the senses and caters to a young child’s inquisitive nature. School days involve full sensory experiences, which minimize behavioral issues you might see in a typical classroom, she said. Young children in a bad mood can calm down quickly if they’re allowed to go outdoors or play with some water, Chadzynski said. Plus, immune systems and vitamin D levels get a boost while playing outside. “So much research shows how much healthier they are,” she said.

“I’m a teacher who has taught at all different age levels,” Chadzynski said. She’s instructed early childhood through high school over a 15-plus year career, has a Masters in curriculum and education through sustainability, and is working on a Ph.D in education. Providing positive experience in preschool, when kids first learn how to learn and be with other kids, is both an important and appealing prospect, Chadzynski said.

What’s the difference between an nature preschool and a conventional one? “Very simply, we are outside,” Chadzynski said, exploring the world, and enjoying what natural elements have to offer. Outdoor activities, such as fort and fairy house building, looking for animal signs and identifying plants, and observing changes in the pond all teach problem solving, working together, and the sensory experiences involved with manipulating materials, she said.

A good site for a nature preschool involves different nature elements. The Elm Hill property, which is yet to be named, has woods, a meadow, and a small pond that will be fenced off for safety but still available for exploration, Chadzynski said. A building on site will be used for shelter during dangerous weather.

What happens when a child steeped in outdoor programming transfers to a conventional school? “As a staff, we talk about that a lot,” Hanchett said, but so far, they’re yet to hear about a problem with transitioning. “It actually seems to be a great readiness piece for them,” she said. Multisensory experiences outdoors seem to make students comfortable in their bodies, Hanchett said, and adapting to frequent changes in weather conditions makes them flexible. They leave the school at five or six prepared to regulate their energy and learn, she said.

Experiential or nature-based education provides a solid foundation for creative problem solving, Chadzynski said. Most children do fine transitioning into a “conventional” setting but still want more time outside, so it’s important for parents to keep their schedules somewhat free to allow for outdoor playtime, she said.

The PES PTO is currently fundraising for outdoor classroom materials through the Raise Craze fundraiser. Chadzynski is assembling a mailing list for her nature preschool. She plans to serve up to 20 children ages three to five, and is working through the state certification process.

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