The Environment As a Classroom

If you conducted a poll amongst my family and friends, it would be unanimous: they would all tell you that I “hate outside”. Not, “She doesn’t like outside,” or “She’s not a fan of outside,” but I guarantee you they would use the word hate. I mean, in the summer, I might hang out on my deck and read a book, or chat on the phone in the sun, but in the winter, you can find me curled up in front of the fireplace in my basement, with four blankets around me. While I wouldn’t say personally that I hate outside, but rather, that I just don’t feel like I get it.  All of the activities that seem to unite my Northern Ontario brethren under a banner of “Look at how outdoorsy we are!” just wasn’t passed along to me. I feel like I’m missing some part of my Greater Sudbury DNA.

The kindergarten curriculum treats outside like another classroom, which you can imagine,

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We explore how to make igloos with molds. Can you make an igloo with cones?

to me, sounds like a special version of my nightmare. And they don’t mean it the way that you might remember the outdoors when you were at school – this is not 20 minutes of recess. This is at least an hour of meaningful outdoor learning. When I came back to kindergarten and found out that the outdoor exploration time of my students would be facilitated by me, there was a certain amount of anxiety. And probably not for the reasons you’re imagining. I wasn’t worried about having to go outside with the kids, but rather, about making that time outside meaningful.

But what does meaningful learning even mean?


Meaningful learning means different things on different days, and can mean a completely different thing when one is outside. Our school offers vast open spaces, so that means that

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C.M. uses a wooden block to try to measure how deep the water is.

the kids are really free to run and play and discover. In a classroom, after awhile, we all just seem to get in each other’s personal space. There’s nowhere to hide in a classroom (nope, not even when you’re just a little 4 year old), and it seems like every corner that you turn, there’s another face that’s entering your bubble. But outside, we’ve got space.

Which means that space becomes a factor in personal learning. They don’t need me glued to their side to do their learning. And the space that we have outside allows them to do independent learning. The kind of independent learning that you only get to hear when you try to walk around and make yourself as invisible as possible. The kind of learning that just cannot be facilitated in a classroom.

The 6th graders made big snowballs. To a kinder, this might as well be Mt. Everest.

Outside, our sandbox becomes a kitchen where we bake cupcakes and spaghetti. Our wooden blocks become cars that we can drive around. Our snow hills become mountains that we conquer. Our imaginations make everything possible.

Last week, the snow had begun melting (of course, we’re back to a fully snow covered yard, but that’s another matter). To many people, that sounds like a nightmare. 100 kindergartners in the water? No thanks, man. I, on the other hand, think that’s precisely the kind of golden opportunity the outdoor exploration lends to. We have these wooden blocks that the students use a lot, and they began using the wooden blocks as bridges over the puddles. In our classroom, we only have the opportunity to pretend that we’re making bridges over water. Outside, as long as we have the tools, our imagination can run wild, and we can make things happen.

Outside gives us the opportunity to learn, play and most importantly, discover. Through their eyes, I’ve begun to appreciate the great outdoors more than I thought I possibly could.

Now if we can just spark an official inquiry while we’re out there …

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We used the snow as our canvas to paint on.

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