Cold, snow or ice – nothing can stop them from getting through. Kegonsa kindergartners, that is. You might think an outdoor classroom in the middle of winter would be no fun at all, but for students of Angel Schroeder, Joy Meyer and Julie Alexander, it turned out to be one of the best parts of a new focus in their classrooms. Now, Kegonsa teachers are using another grant to expand the learning area, which is open for business – and fun – all year ‘round.
The teachers created the area last year, using funds from a Stoughton Area School District “Innovation Grant” focused on “play and inquiry-based learning.” Under the maple trees – whether they had leaves or not – the kids spent a half-hour four out of five days, learning about nature, and working together to explore and learn.
Students visited “sensory stations” where they could do everything from identify leaves to dig up bugs or make “mud pies.” When the snow falls, there is also plenty to see and do, like identifying the tracks of animals, or about anything else a 5- or 6-year-old could come up with.
Now, the trio are expanding the area, using a $3,000 grant from the Healthy Classrooms Foundation. Schroeder applied for the grant from the group, a statewide nonprofit “committed to improving the health of children throughout Wisconsin,” according to its website. “I wanted to further our students’ sense of wonder, academic growth and connection to their natural environment,” she told the Hub in an email.
Some of the funds will be used for benches and a stage or presentation area, including a blackboard, a plexiglass easel and an aluminum boat students can play in and around. Schroeder said the school hopes to begin the expansion this school year, although the work could continue into subsequent years.
Schroeder said the outdoor classroom is a space where children can go “with the freedom to be themselves.” “Their imaginations really come alive when they step outside the school building,” she said.
Kegonsa principal Erin Conrad said the outdoor classroom, which has been expanded to include first-graders, is a “critical piece of our play-and inquiry-based classrooms,” providing a “different setting in which to learn and wonder and follow curiosities.”
“The evolving seasons offer students the opportunity to explore the seasons and nature in small and big ways,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “While educators offer structured learning opportunities as students work to master a skill, there is plenty of unstructured time, which gives students large movement breaks as well as time to naturally collaborate and problem solve with their peers in a natural setting.”
First-grade teacher Erica Klefstad said there is a “sense of peace and wonder” when the students are outdoors. She said the area “truly captures the idea of inquiry for not only students, but teachers, too.” “There is always something new that our ‘third environment’ has to show us for the day,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “Instead of telling children about the parts of a cicada, they are able to see and feel one’s shell with their own eyes, squeal as a live one is flying towards them, and then wonder where it disappears to … I am learning about the world through the eyes of a child.”
Time spent in the outdoor classroom is often the “best part of our day,” said fellow first-grade teacher Patricia Wilton. “(It’s) an experience that is full of wonder, yet humbling at the same time,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “It’s a time when kids are allowed to be kids and learn in ways that comes most naturally to them.”
Third-grade teacher Jess Davis said it shows that “education doesn’t have to take place inside,” citing a recent student survey that said nearly 90 percent would rather be outside. He said the area has been used for other school activities like Reader’s Theatre, Writer’s Workshop, Science Inquiry and Community Building Activities. “It’s rewarding to see the strengths of each individual student come out when they are outside,” she said.
Kindergarten teacher Joy Meyer said it’s healthy for kids to be outside during all seasons. Even though some of the teachers may make sure they’re plenty bundled up for those chilly winter afternoons. “Outdoor experiences help students increase their understanding of their natural and human communities, which leads to a sense of place,” she wrote the Hub in an email. “Instead of talking to children or showing them pictures about something, let them experience it first-hand.”
Email Unified Newspaper Group reporter Scott De Laruelle at email@example.com.