MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday the 27th of September, 2022.
Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: new ways to teach.
During the pandemic, many teachers took their classes outside in an effort to keep the virus from spreading. But as many schools return to a more normal school year, some are finding that school outside just might work better. WORLD’s Lauren Dunn reports.
LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Stan and Katie Saiz lead Green Gate Children’s School in Wichita, Kan.
SAIZ: I am the director, and he is the administrator. And then he also teaches all of our math from kindergarten through sixth grade. And I am here, there, and everywhere doing everything. [laughter]
Katie has a degree and experience in child development, while Stan’s degree is in biochemistry. They ran a nature-based preschool out of their home for several years before launching the school in 2020. They still offer preschool classes, but now they also have about 50 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.
SAIZ: A lot of times our doors are just propped open so that we have that fresh air, even if we're not outside. If it's a really nice day, you might see a homeroom go out and sit under the tree and do their lessons outside. We also like to have the kids’ different tools available like clipboards or lap desks and things like that so they can move wherever they want to learn…
Saiz says that it was parents of their preschoolers who first asked them about starting a school for older students. They wanted their kids to be outside during their grade school years, too. Some families come to Green Gate because a traditional school environment doesn’t work well for their child.
Children aren’t the only ones who enjoy the school grounds. Two dogs, Ozzie and Penny, go in and out at will on this September day. And five chickens strut around the fenced-in run on one side of the yard.
TOUR: We have Vanilla, Brownie, Oreo, Milky Way, and Butterscotch [laughter]
In 2017, there were about 250 nature-based preschool and kindergarten programs in the country. By 2020, the number had jumped to 585. That surge in interest prompted the University of Cincinnati to launch an early childhood education degree program with a focus on nature-based learning.
Ellen Veselack is the associate director of consulting and professional development at the Outdoor Classroom Project. She’s also the director of a nature-based preschool program in California. She says too many educators look at outside learning as an “extra.”
VESELACK: I've had people say to me, ‘This is lovely, but we have too much instructional time to ever think about going outdoors.’ And I want to turn that on its head and I want people to say, ‘We have been doing so much outdoors that we haven't had time to go indoors,’ because it's that much better.
Studies suggest that all students can better concentrate simply by being in a classroom with a view of outside. Other studies show benefits specifically for students with ADHD.
At Veselack’s program, the outdoor space is divided into areas just like an indoor classroom with spaces for blocks, music, art, and books. She says learning takes place everywhere – even in the sandbox.
VESELACK: If they want to build a river and they want to get it to go in a certain direction, they don't know that it has to go downhill, they have to figure that out. That's part of the learning that happens as they do it…
There are no nationwide statistics for elementary or high school programs using nature-based education. The model is probably more common for preschoolers than it is for older students. Robert Sendrey is a program director at the National Environmental Education Foundation. He says the sensory-rich outdoor model is beneficial for older students.
SENDREY: If you go outside, and it's hot, or it's cold, if it's a place you've never been before, you have all the sights and sounds that are new to you, you're going to be engaged in a way that is superior to just having a textbook in front of you, or a screen where you're watching a video.
One challenge with this kind of hands-on learning is administrators aren’t always sure how to document it. Sendrey says one of the best ways is to work on real-world projects, with students analyzing information and presenting their findings.
SENDREY: There may be [a] community parks department, that the way they manage their golf courses is creating water quality issues in the watershed. And so by the students monitoring that water quality and being able to present their findings to the park department or the Department of rec, they now are showing that yes, we've learned about this and this is a concern. And here are some recommendations. So we're engaging them in much more than you can measure on any test.
Outside at Green Gate Children’s School, children play in a boat filled with sand, climbing structures, a small garden area, and, of course, the chickens.
In the middle of the yard is a stack of four large tires.
AUDIO: The older kids stacked those up. And that's not an easy feat. Because when I tried to help them, I was like, Oh, my gosh, how did you guys do this. And basically, it was like just teamwork…
It's a beautiful September day today, but not all Kansas school days are sunny with comfortably warm temperatures. Except for severe weather, Green Gate students are often outside. They just make sure to bring weather-appropriate clothing.
AUDIO: Our kids jump in the puddles. There, they're out there enjoying all different types of weather. I mean, this is kind of perfect weather right now, which we as much as we can get that we love. But the kids don't care what the weather is, they're right out there with it.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn in Wichita, Kansas.
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