The idea emerged in Denmark in the 1950s: why not take preschool students out of the classroom and into a natural environment? This outdoor education would help children grasp social skills and learn new concepts in a hands-on way, allowing them to grow as they play. The concept, given the simple moniker “Forest School,” soon became a staple curriculum in its native country.
Maumee Valley Country Day School (MVCDS) embraced the idea as part of its Early Learning Center’s new curriculum. Students in Junior Kindergarten begin each day with a lengthy session in their “outdoor classroom.”
Michelle Thomas, director of the Early Learning Center, explains, “[It’s] letting kids explore and learn in nature at their own pace and based on their own interests so we have a balanced approach between teacher-led curriculum and children-led learning.”
A revamped curriculum
This new approach to educating Junior Kindergarten students came about as the school worked to revamp its curriculum last year.
“While we were outside, we were beginning to explore the 75-acre campus with our students and thinking: ‘we need to utilize more of our campus’…it’s right here,” said Lindsay Tassos, MVCDS Junior Kindergarten teacher.
The program began in August, with students spending two-and-a-half hours outside every day. If there’s lightning, they’ll come back indoors, but otherwise— rain, snow or shine— they dress for conditions and hold class outside.
“Forest School is a new kind of concept, but outdoor learning is nothing new for Maumee Valley. It reaffirms our Country Day School roots,” Thomas said.
The outdoor education is not limited to Junior Kindergarten, either. This year’s preschool, pre-k and kindergarten students also began the school year with a two-week intensive session of Forest School-inspired learning. A second intensive session will follow at the end of the year, and teachers are experimenting with adding other types of outdoor education classes.
“They are going outside on a weekly basis. Kindergarten has Forest School Fridays, and preschool and pre-k, are going outside every day as well,” Thomas said.
Thus far, both students and parents have greeted the program with enthusiasm. Parents note how kids are thrilled to talk about their day at school while expressing interest in going outside even more. The Early Learning Center is looking at ways to expand the program in future years, including connecting with the Metroparks and the Boy Scouts to supplement their work.
“The research is showing that even older children are benefitting from the fresh air and the unstructured time spent outside, making a connection with nature that is getting pretty lost with all the technology and extra-curricular activities,” said teacher Christine Marker.