The Why, How and What of our outdoor preschool journey.
Covid has been such a negative in so many areas but it has also pushed us to think outside of our regular routine. Challenging us to be more innovative, creative and intentional.
For a few years, we had talked about taking our preschool classes outside more and creating a more engaging outdoor learning space. A space outside of a typical playground that while fun, often strains on the unrestricted play that we dream for the children in our program. We thought about making an outdoor Friday, where we would spend the class outside. We brainstormed some options but nothing materialized and the dream remained a dream. We continued to take as many outdoor courses or workshops that were available. This only continued to entrigue and motivate us in wanting to move our teaching more outside. Our pursuit of learning about outdoor ed was pivotal in pushing us forward. You can’t do what you don’t know and the more we learned the more urgent moving outdoors became, with or without Covid.
When we first closed our doors in March 2020 due to Covid, not knowing much about the virus at the time, we were a little worried and overwhelmed by the amount of cleaning and protocols we would need to implement given that up to 80 different children rotate throughout our class every two days. We were challenged to figure out how to still offer a quality, meaningful program, while ensuring that our classroom was clean and safe for everyone who attended. Licensing was telling all childcare facilities that the more we are outside, the better it was during Covid 19. This is when we decided to explore an outdoor classroom.
Our amazing preschool team quickly started to research and put together a proposal that the school approved!
Once the school approved our plan, we quickly got to calling each of our preschool families to let them know of the changes for September. The families were mostly excited and ready (some cautiously) to embark on a new and flexible adventure with us.
Over the summer we, (our trooper families included), diligently worked together planning, building, scavenging and researching our outdoor space. Besides the jungle of blackberry bushes, the largest financial hurdle was deciding how to create a safe perimeter. The school agreed to instal a perimeter fence. Once the fence was in, we got moving! From pruning the trees that when we started were unseen, prepping the ground, cutting and securing logs, spreading bark mulch and literally hours of discussions about set up, safety, functionality, licensing regulations and everything in between we soon ended with a little piece of educational heaven. This space could never have happened without the many, many hands that offered to help, whether that be from donating supplies or physical labour, this space carries the voices of so many people who were willing to go above and beyond!
We are so proud of our outdoor space, we often say that it was built with blood, sweat and tears, quite literally.
We have found that being outside has been an amazing gift. We all have agreed that we could never teach within 4 walls all class again. As teachers, we find we have way more energy and we are continually amazed by how resilient children are in all weather. It is evident that they all have a deep desire to be in creation.
It has been shocking to see how common, negative behaviours that we deal with regularly are basically non-existent. We have also seen a huge growth in the children’s physical strength. For example, walking to and from the outside classroom used to be quite the trek that could take anywhere from 10-15 minutes, now it’s often under 5 minutes, which is pretty great! We have had a lot of positive feedback from families, which has been super encouraging. The common theme of email feedback often starts with “I was really nervous about outdoor school but….”.
We have been working really hard to shift many of the common narratives of “good” and “bad” weather, celebrating ALL types of weather as a gift from God, which it is. With good gear and attitudes, weather is now seen as an opportunity for an ever changing learning environment. Now, five months in and the coldest, wettest season, the children never complain, they get ready and remain engaged the whole class time outside. What we also really value is the problem solving skills that are developed within our weather. Water getting in your eyes? Cold fingers? Wet gloves? Too hot? Too cold? All of these things offer our children the opportunity to find functional solutions!
Going outside has given us the gift of taking childhood back to the basics. We have learned so much about creation and the community we live in. Children are more engaged and curious. One thing that we stop to notice on a daily basis is the sky. Have you ever stopped to really see it? The different shades of white, the rapid movement of clouds, the blues, the darkness, the light rain, the heavy rain, the snow…God paints us a canvas each day that often changes by the minute! We love hearing our children proclaim a change or an observation!
We just spent the month of January exploring magnificent Eagles that live in the trees beside our school. It’s been an incredible opportunity to facilitate “place-based” learning in God’s amazing creation all around us. While indoors we may have watched a video or read a book about Eagle nests, whereas being outside we hunted for the items needed to build a nest, like sticks and grass and then created our own Eagle nest!
Children have learned to be creation enjoyers and caretakers. We talk about when we are outside, we are in the bugs house, so we need to take care of them and not instinctively squish them. Even down to the simplicity of muddy puddles and worms that surface, children are enthralled with a desire to care for and learn more about the environment around them. We have used all of our new discoveries as teachable moments and topics. Literacy, collaboration and creativity comes so naturally when we immerse ourselves in creation and open ourselves up to the opportunities in our own backyards. It is the immersion of these types of learning opportunities that offer our children a desire for deep learning. We strongly believe that our children have a chance to see education as not just another box to tick off, but to develop a deep love for it. With this comes a connection to our space, our teachers, our peers and most importantly, our creator. We see this continually in our outdoor classroom.
In a nutshell, this has been amazing, no regrets! After all, we were originally created to live in a garden.