Each school has great potential to engage in powerful learning experiences. There have been some innovative ideas generated at Godfrey Lee Public Schools Early Childhood Center. I had asked Debbie Schuitema if she would be willing to share more to the story.
By Debbie Schuitema
I have lived in the city for most of my life but my family was always doing things outdoors (camping, sledding, building snow forts, etc.). From 1988-1990 my family moved to a missionary compound in Monrovia, Liberia where my dad helped start and run a high school. We had no TV so we spent the majority of our time outdoors exploring the ocean and the rainforest. This experience cultivated a lifelong curiosity and love for the outdoors as well as appreciation for diversity.
Photo from the 6th Grade BEEP’s Camping Trip
A few years after we came back I had the unique opportunity to attend the Grand Rapids Public School Blandford 6th program . (Blandford Environmental Education Program – BEEP) It was and still is my favorite year of school! Most everything I know about trees, wildflowers, birds, and maple syrup came from that experience and has stuck with me – more than any other class I’ve taken. I loved trail guiding younger children, so much so, that I subjected my younger siblings, cousins and babysitters to this knowledge every time we were outside together. (I hope they all remember how to identify Sassafras and enjoy the fruit loopy taste of the leaves). I remember crying really hard at the end of the year because I did not want it to be over.
In college I requested to be placed at either Zoo School or Blandford because I wanted to be a part of something like that someday. My placement was at the Zoo School
. I got to work with the master himself, Dennis Kretschman. I learned so much from him. (He reminds me of that disputed quote from St. Francis of Assisi “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words” – just replace the beginning with Teach, and if necessary, use words)
. It was incredible to watch that 6th grade experience from the adult/teacher perspective while still holding the student memories in my mind.
After graduating my career in education took some twists and turns in both public and private schools, mostly in middle school math and expanding to a coaching role at all grade levels k-12. Even though I was not teaching outdoor education, I always tried to keep exploration a part of teaching and learning because I believe we learn by doing. I want kids to have that same type of authentic learning experience that I had. Throughout my career it is noticeable that kids are spending less and less time out doors. Even recess time has decreased in order to meet instructional demands.
Research shows all of the unintended consequences of this, and we as educators can help turn this around with the right support and resources.
Currently I am the EL Math Coach at the Godfrey Lee Early Childhood Center
– the setting of what I like to call “The perfect storm.” (Storms don’t have to be viewed as a bad thing – they are vital to world). There were ideas brewing among myself and some other teachers simultaneously. We talked about the various needs for getting kids outside
. Someone read “The Last Child in the Woods.
” I had been reading a lot about Forest Kindergartens in thinking about my own kids (using the outdoors as the setting for authentic learning experiences). A teacher chimed in with insights from her Reggio-Emilia background. We all want to get the learning to “stick” or connect in a way worksheets can not.
Then all of a sudden we had an opportunity to have Blandford Nature Center
help us rethink how to utilize our resources outdoors! I have not seen educators this excited in my 12 years of teaching.
Our first day of planning we got an outdoor classroom set up with stumps
. That afternoon a class came out to use it. A few more classes used it the very next day. We’ve had classes go out sporadically to use the place to read, write, observe, etc. Our staff helped create and plant a native species garden with seeds generously donated by Blandford Nature Center.
Here is some of what we are hoping to use the space for but the kids may change our path:
- Host a parent information night to bring them through the space, get feedback, and get some to volunteer.
- Partner with HS/MS classes to have “Nature Buddies” for various activities (fort building, pen pals, reading and researching together, older kids teaching younger and vice versa)
- Get a group of 20-25 kids outside everyday starting in March for various learning experiences to help us build a curriculum to use the following year.
- Each grade level has a class with specific days with Blandford – we hope other classrooms at that grade level will go out and use the same lessons and we’ll keep building from there.
- Tap our Maple tree, collect and measure sap (several lessons can be created from this)
- Plant more trees on the property (White Pine is a priority)
- Study Plaster Creek and learn about what effect pollutants have on the environment
- Develop “Nature Maps” of the school grounds to display inside.
- Get and build a shed to store supplies and STEM activities.
- Collect boots, gloves, hats etc. to provide comfortable outdoor experiences if needed (and to give to any parents that want to join for a day)
Teachers, high school students, Blandford staff and volunteers came together to create an “Enchanted Forest” for the students’ future fort building projects.
This is not the end but just the beginning!
Related: Urban Outdoor Learning, Leaves for Play and Learning and Beyond the Classroom
Also, if you’re interested in developing place-based learning experiences like this for your students or school community please contact Janet Staal at firstname.lastname@example.org.