The Outdoor Classroom
What if our idea of school did not include an actual school building? What if school did not include classes, books, desks, or even chairs? What if the only time school children were inside during the day was when they were at home in the morning and evening? What if we valued being in nature as much (or more!) as we valued being in a classroom?
These were some of the provocative questions raised by a short documentary entitled “School’s Out” that Anne brought in for our staff to watch on Monday. The film follows a group of children enrolled in Switzerland’s Forest Kindergarten (Waldkindergarten) program, which is part of a larger movement of Forest Schooling that has recently started to spread in central Europe and the U.K. The essential quality of Waldkindergarten is that the children remain outdoors in the forest all day long...every day of the school year. There is a tarped area with stumps underneath to sit on, but that’s it for sheltered space.
The program also involves other approaches to early-childhood education that are almost unthinkable in the United States: They require that 4-7 year olds walk to and from their school bus stops unaccompanied by parents in order to help establish a sense of independence and self-confidence (one parent admits to following her child the first week, dodging from bush to bush to avoid detection!). Children are trained to use swiss army knives to whittle sharp points on sticks when needed. Campfires burn regularly, and students are trained to light the tinder and tend the fires. Students are not necessarily kept in view of teachers, one of whom casually notes “I usually know where they (the students) generally are in the woods, but I often can’t see them”. Finally, students are not asked to read or write during their time in the program. As a matter of fact, reading and writing are not formally taught to any Swiss children until after age 7! (And yes... they do catch up quickly with earlier readers and writers.)
The Randolph School is not a Waldkindergarten, but we could not help but come away from the movie inspired, impressed, and feeling good about our own deep commitment to the outdoor classroom. Our daily, extended interactions with nature at Randolph are part of the foundation of competence, confidence and independence we believe is so important for our students. We know that every log we climb over, every stone we overturn, and every puddle or stream we prod and stir with a stick helps build our sense of curiosity and our understanding of the world around us.