Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Outdoor Classroom

 I love trees.  I always have.  When I was a little girl, there was this one June Apple tree that I climbed constantly.  It was the place I always headed after school.  My best friend had her limb and I had mine. We sat in that tree and solved life's problems as we knew them.  (Actually, we probably argued over which of the Dukes of Hazzard was cutest, but that is beside the point.) My dad even added a monkey bar between those two limbs so I could just flip right down to the ground instead of jumping like a wild chimpanzee.
     My point is, kids love being outside and there is just something fascinating about trees. And I believe today's society is way too geared toward organized sports and indoor gaming, when there is a whole outdoor world to be explored.
     Several years ago, I took the best workshop ever. It was called UTOTES (Using the Outdoors to Teach Experiential Science).  I looked FORWARD to those days after school...and believe me when I say I generally do not get all excited over workshops.  But something registered with me during the course of that particular one which stuck with me....I remember thinking this is the way we need to be teaching kids science, NOT out of textbooks. And then, during a walk around our school's amazing campus, which also has a butterfly garden and bluebird houses, I discovered this place. In the woods. (I did not even realize the woods were school property.) An untapped goldmine. The OUTDOOR classroom.
 I had taught here for years, and I had NO idea it was even there.  I began calling it Terabithia. (Of course my first graders had no idea what that meant, but it soon became our "secret classroom".) It looked pretty rough back then.  But there was a neat little "stage" where we began doing Reader's Theatre, sometimes for other classes, but usually just for our own fun. And we did a lot of nature exploring. Eventually, it got so overgrown we couldn't use it.  Last year, an Eagle Scout rebuilt all the benches, because trees had fallen on them and crushed them.  When I took my class out for the first time this year, the weeds had once again overtaken the outdoor wonderland.  (Not to mention the fact that we all got eaten alive by mosquitoes.) And then a very nice thing happened.  Last weekend, a former student (whose brother happens to be in my class this year) took on the project of clearing the path and the classroom once again, and when we went out today to do science, we were sooooo excited to see the improvement!
     I have a confession. I was supposed to do testing today, but I forgot my iPad on the charger at home.  I pretended to be upset by this.  But since I did remember my hiking shoes, we just made the best of a terrible situation;)
 The kids took field guides and observed the life that one tree can support.  We talked about how trees help us breathe and the resources that they provide.

 And I read this book to the class.  I discovered this one last spring and had to have it. Because it talks about how a tree became a special part of a family, the center of activity, and even after a storm blew it down (my favorite quote from the book) "protected all of us to the very end, and friends like this are hard to find."
 At the end of a stressful week, I find refuge in the woods as often as possible. I love the air, the smell of the leaves, and the quiet. If I can leave behind fluorescent lights of a classroom and head to the woods with "my kids" as I call them, I will do it every chance I get.  But don't tell everybody...I don't want to have to share my Terabithia:)

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