Thursday, August 22, 2013

Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom Training

When you were four to seven, what did you enjoy doing outdoors? We shared these experiences and our blood pressure dropped. I lived out near Bonneyville Mill as a child. I remember a big strawberry patch, running barefoot outside (and stepping on a rusty nail), selling strawberries by the side of the road, catching garter snakes, and hanging upside down in a tree. The place sits empty now and the nearby barn was just recently torn down.

A couple of weekends ago I attended a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom and Documenting Children's Learning with Nature training. It was a bit of a drive for me over at a lovely facility at Hoover Forest Preserve in Yorkville, Illinois. I am helping with a project for a certified Outdoor Classroom at Woodlawn Nature Center in Elkhart. "Helping", spear heading, figuring out how many things at home I can repurpose, begging from friends and organizations for materials and labor, making my husband cut wood, it's all the same, right? I can't wait to see the children fully using this area!

The facility itself is beautiful. I wish I had additional time to spend on the grounds. Upon arrival, I explored the grounds, checked out the materials, flipped through their books (I only have one), drooled over the great ideas, and met others who were interested in the topic. As part of our class, we investigated several makeshift areas. The Hoover Forest Preserve hosted the event and is in the process of establishing their own Outdoor Classroom. Since it is still in the works, the presenters brought a few supplies to give us the view of possibilities. A few areas include "Messy Materials", Music and Movement, Nature Art, Building, and Gardening. Inside, we made a map of our explorations, using sills such as visual/spatial, close observation, understanding of physical space, 2 dimensional representations of 3-D areas, written skills, etc. 

After sharing rationale behind the Outdoor Classrooms, we went outside with a mission to represent the life cycle of a butterfly or plant, plan a garden, etc. I went to the Music and Movement area, as this is probably one of my weaker areas of expertise; however, I want to learn how to incorporate these ideas better. Armed with scarves, rain sticks, bells, and creative minds, we came up with a representation of the life cycle of a butterfly. 

We planned, schemed, negotiated, practiced, laughed, and showed an egg, caterpillar, chrysalis, and emerging butterfly through movement and music.


At the Nature Art area, they used various natural products to represent the same process. While the concepts were the same, the execution and product was quite different! 

From egg to butterfly!

I love all these loose parts!

In the gardening area, they planned a salsa garden. In looking at our garden with my 4-year-old, I'm understanding why gardens should be included in outdoor classrooms.

In the building area, there was a representation of the life cycle of a plant. In this case, they showed a tree as it aged, was cut down, and eventually became paper. Such unique approaches in each of these!

We also spent some time finding and sharing something nearby. I often use this technique with my own children. During the morning we looked at the Ten Guiding Principles of the Outdoor Classrooms, with examples and ideas of how to implement each of these. We looked at the research behind the principles and the benefits of having children learn in nature. For example, when children play outside, they have twice as much physical exercise, more friends, better vision, improved academics, buffers to life stress, and more! Many national organizations are supporting more nature time for young children, such as NAEYC, ASCD, and Head Start.

Over lunch many of us walked down to the nearby nature preschool. It is clean, simple, and inviting!

Loose parts were available. Natural wood and colors were used throughout. 


Live animals could be observed. 

The gathering area was inviting. It was a warm, welcoming place for learning! 

We switched gears in the afternoon and looked at documenting children's learning with nature. "The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust

We made observations on natural items. While many items are sold in the Nature Explore store, I was also intrigued by pieces of cork, small times, carpet samples, granite pieces, and more. Beautiful things! An invitation to play!

We had the opportunity to learn with blocks. I made a representation of two people sitting at the beach with trees nearby and the sun shining high. I liked the different perspectives from varying angles. They gave us an excellent handout the numerous skills we use when building with blocks. This will be good for documenting children's learning.

We also stood up, took a deep breath, and swayed like a tree. Just a little movement is what we needed. I recently started a different full-time position on the computer, so I'm remembering to take these movement breaks, even if I'm just swaying like a tree!

It was great having a real experience with the ideas, materials, research, and more. What I also enjoyed was just comparing notes with others to see what they were doing. For example, one lady nearby did not have a big budget for her area either. The children used corn stalks and branches in various ways. She helped me understand the practical side to many aspects, such as using a varnish to protect the wood outside. She also found wood shakers at Target. Thanks for sharing!

"It is quite possible for today's child to grow up without ever having taken a solitary walk beside a stream, or spent the hours we used to foraging for pine cones, leaves, feathers and rocks--treasures more precious than store-bought ones. 

Today it is difficult to tear children away from the virtual world of the mall to introduce them to the real one." --from the book, The Geography of Childhood, by Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble