At the Gillispie School, we have long aspired to an ‘Outdoor Classroom’ but always felt limited by our concrete playground situated in the middle of a residential neighborhood. With a small lawn and a scattering of trees, it didn’t seem to offer very many opportunities for the children to interact authentically with nature. Although we made an effort to provide interesting and engaging provocations for the children, the space fell short of our expectations of what an outdoor classroom should look and feel like. More often than not, the teachers defaulted to using the playground simply as a place for recess.
Our perspective changed this year because of a student whose sensory processing difficulties worsened whenever we were indoors for any length of time. We reflected on what in the environment might be triggering his symptoms and made modifications in the classroom to accommodate as many of his needs as possible. We realized, though, that he was happier and more successful outside, so outside was where we needed to be.
We initially thought of our move outside as a short-term solution that would buy us time as we sought support services for our student, but within the first week, we began noticing all of the potentials of the outdoor space. Our ‘Outdoor Classroom’ had been there all along but, like most things in nature, it had just needed some tender loving care to flourish. Being outside for hours at a time inspired more exploration, inquiry, collaboration, and learning than we usually saw inside our classroom. Our student, as well as the whole class, was thriving.
Here in Southern California, we don’t have as obvious a change in seasons as most other parts of our country do, but we do have daily shifts in weather. If you pay attention, you can see how the environment changes, hour by hour. Cool mornings turn into hot sunny days and overcast mornings are interrupted by gusts of wind that blow the clouds away. The sun slowly climbs higher in the sky, making shadows recede throughout the playground; hummingbirds dart in and out of the trees; butterflies flutter around the milkweed plants; crows swoop down across the lawn to look for dropped morsels of snack; our school’s lop-eared bunny, Peekaboo, pops out of his hiding spot in the digging area to say hello. During the winter months, rain soaks our playground, providing puddles and rushing streams for us to play in. The runoff from the rain gutters collects in our watering cans, which we use to water the gardens on dry San Diego days.
Children are natural scientists; all day long they are investigating, hypothesizing, testing theories, and learning about their world. For all of its perceived shortcomings, our outdoor environment actually offered our class an abundance of opportunities to hone and master these skills. It was transformative, and children love the power and wonder of transformation. With the addition of water, their hands, their hair, and their entire bodies could go from dry to wet; they could transform the dusty dirt in the digging area into squishy mud perfect for “magic potions”; they could use a paintbrush and a tin cup of water to color the concrete with designs or “wash” the trikes and play structure; they could pour water into the sandbox and create rivers and lakes. These kinds of explorations were limited in our classroom, but not so outdoors.
The children connected with nature in authentic ways, exploring sights and smells and textures. Throughout the morning we could find them basking in the sun as they sat and enjoyed a snack with a friend; laying down with binoculars watching the clouds go by; shoveling through layers of dirt in the digging area to unearth hidden roots and seeds; running up and then rolling down the small hill between the elementary and Early Childhood campuses; making jewelry out of sticks and beads found in the sandbox; immersing their hands and feet in mud; observing the many caterpillars growing in the garden boxes; practicing, over and over, how to climb the Rosewood trees all by themselves. Through these interactions with nature, the children were developing a love and respect for the natural world around them and paying less attention to the manmade play structure in the middle of our yard.
All of that rolling and digging and climbing (not to mention running, trike-riding, jumping, crawling, and heavy block lifting) was connecting the children to their own bodies, making them more self-aware and more purposeful with their movements. They were building spatial awareness and gaining confidence in their bodies, problem-solving as they tested their physical limits. All about the playground we could also see the children exercising their fine motor muscles: drawing and painting in the art studio, plucking tiny treasures out of the sandbox, writing signs for their creations at the writing table, carefully turning the pages of a book in the ‘Book Nook’, assembling intricate Lego structures, grasping fallen leaves and seeds from off the ground, and gently lifting insects from the garden.
In all the months we spent outdoors, not a single child ever asked why we weren’t inside or when we were going back. They were much too busy working and far too engaged to care. Our student with the sensory challenges was calmer and more present; he was able to satisfy so many of his body’s needs outside – full body sensory play (he was usually soaking wet or covered in mud or paint!), climbing, rolling, yelling, and running. The open space relaxed his body and allowed him to focus on his interests. He had better days and made better connections with his peers.
As we look back on the school year, where we started and where we are ending, we are so thankful for this child and how his needs helped shape our year and our teaching. One of the principles of the Reggio Emilia philosophy is that the environment is the third teacher, as influential as parents and educators. What do you do, though, when a child does not thrive in your environment when their needs are not being met? When it comes to children’s behavior, one of our mottos is, “It’s not the child, it’s the environment.” It is a child’s right to be provided the most supportive environment possible. Once we reflected on what the most supportive environment for our student was, we committed to changing our practices. We didn’t realize that giving our student what he needed would also give the other children so much more of what they needed, too. It’s always our goal to be reflective and co-learn alongside the children; this year has reinforced the importance of always being reflective and looking at challenging situations as opportunities to grow and learn. If we expect that of our students, we should expect that of ourselves. We were inspired to cultivate our outdoor classroom and make the most of all the possibilities within it. We, our students, and our colleagues and their students, were energized by the changes and will be reaping the rewards of our evolving ‘Outdoor Classroom’ for years to come.
Savonia Guy is an Early Childhood educator and an Atelierista at The Gillispie School, working alongside her is Michelle Quinton who is an Early Childhood educator. Thankyou Savonia and Michelle for sharing your story and reflections about the ‘Outdoor Classroom’ at Gillispie.