In 2015, Recreational Equipment Inc. encouraged people to spend Black Friday outdoors. REI closed its stores that day in support of their vision. Given you're reading this blog you probably don't need convincing that a day spent adventuring outside is better than any day spent at the mall. Either way, the #optoutside video campaign that year was heartwarming and worth a few minutes of your time. Every day we bring our kids to ROCS, we #optoutside.
In a recent conversation with ROCS Director, Cheryl Ryan and the chair of ROCS Education Committee and Metro Parks Education Administrator, Tanya Taylor, we got to talking about what playing and learning outside currently looks like at ROCS and how that might that change over time. At the root of the conversation were questions like: What does it mean to be a nature-immersion school? Why do we #optputside at ROCS and how does that look day-to-day?
Reflecting we realized these questions had multiple answers. We identified at least two parts to the equation: 1) providing environmentally connected programming and, 2) simply enabling kids to play and learn outdoors. People tend to think of environmentally-embedded education when they hear nature-immersion - school gardens, nature walks to collect and study specimens, habitat restoration, and other things we very much see as our goals. Most ROCS parents are concerned about the environment and want our kids to learn to be stewards of the earth before its too late. However, there are many other reasons to be glad we #optoutside during the school day.
A recent report from REI and Futerra, The Path Ahead: The Future of Life Outdoors, released just in time for Black Friday 2017, might help us articulate more of those reasons in the future. It suggests, "Often, the outdoor community is focused on what we need to do to fix the outdoors, but it isn’t the only thing suffering — we are too. The outdoors can be the antidote to so much of what ails us in our 21st century life."
The Path Ahead is "designed to provoke discussion by exploring nine ‘brutal truths’ juxtaposed with nine ‘beautiful possibilities." For example, to combat humans' ever-increasing evolution towards an "Indoor Species," they propose a return to "Free Range Humans." To address the kind of "Urban Sprawl" we are all too familiar with in central Ohio, development that erases our last vast green spaces, they call for more "Wild Cities" where nature is integrated into planning. More than just a manifesto, it is packed with references to research studies for further reading.
The report brought me back to a recent morning I spent in the natural playspace chatting with our Chickadees teacher Michelle McNabb. Michelle has decades of experience teaching, both in traditional school settings and homeschooling her own children. I wanted to follow-up on something she'd told me: While she'd been nervous at the start of the year about having to transition a group of 5 and 6 year-olds from over an hour of unstructured play to an hour and a half of structured academic time, she found the opposite to be true. After their free time playing outside, the kids were ready to settle in and focus. The typical wiggles of kindergarteners in a classroom were greatly reduced and they were able to be more productive as a result. (Compare this with The Path Ahead "All Work No Play" -> "Headspace")
Michelle begins her weekly reports to parents with notes and observations about outdoor play time. For example, for October 24-27 she wrote,
In outside news, we had our first campfire of the season! Students helped gather dry(ish) sticks and learned how to make a cone of kindling with recycled fire starter material in the middle. We also reviewed fire safety expectations: only grownups start or put materials in a fire, walking only around the fire pit, and stand arm's length away from the pit. Students learned that fires need fuel and air to burn, and how to encourage embers by blowing gently on them. They also experienced the difference between smoke and steam when we put the fire out using creek water. Students also enjoyed exploring our expanded play area. The discovery of an animal skull led to the creation of paleontology club that searched for more remains. A new slide and an uphill trek with the aid of a climbing rope has been a fun physical challenge as well as an added running loop for more large motor movement.
The morning I spent with Michelle, I noticed my own daughter and a friend sat on a log side-by-side and read, in the low 40-degree temperatures(!) for nearly the full first hour of school. Michelle suggested that different kids need different things from that time on different days. Sometimes they need to run and scream and sometimes they just need to sit quietly with friends and talk. (Compare this with The Path Ahead "Sick and Sad" -> "Nature RX")
It's no secret our school is in its infancy. That means we are doing some totally amazing things, and we're still working hard to figure out lots of others. Refining our vision and developing curriculum and general standards of practice fully in line with that vision won't happen overnight. But let's remember and be thankful that our teachers and children, board members and parents are working towards that goal everyday - through our actions and interactions.
This Friday we hope you'll #optoutside. If you share any photos on social media, we'd love to see them! Tag Red Oak Community School (on Facebook) and @redoackcommunityschool (on Instagram). It'll be fun how many of us are out there, wherever we might be!
ROCS Mom, Education Committee Member, and Blog Editor