• Karen MacLean

You should definitely do outdoor schooling in the winter (outdoor learning tools, part 5)

The leaves are turning, the elderberries are drooping, and the birds are quieter, now that we are turning to fall. The season of Halloween, mittens, and hot chocolate (pumpkin spice lattes for the adults) is upon us. As is full-tilt indoor schooling. Because, cold. And wet. And in some places, dark!


But we’d like to invite you to consider outdoor schooling, nonetheless. In fact, outdoor schooling in the colder months has some special gifts to offer in terms of learning.


What is nature (for), anyway?

Since most children live in the city, they often grow up with an understanding of nature that is rather limited. Many of us have learned directly or indirectly that nature is somewhere a bit uncomfortable (bugs, sunscreen, sand) that we go on special vacations or occasions, something beautiful that we pass through rapidly on our way to somewhere else, or something that we must save as fast as we can by – well, we don’t even really know how. Sorting trash, perhaps, or using less toilet paper.


As a culture, we view nature as a spectacle or a victim, something external and unrelated to us.


Taking learning out into nature teaches children – and reminds us, adults – that nature is a perfectly decent space to be, to hang out, to learn, to chill, to explore, etc. Sensing, interacting with, and better understanding nature can create a feeling of being a part of nature, of belonging and attachment. This can lead to greater engagement in local and global conservation.


Learning and playing and hanging out in nature demystifies and diversifies our idea of nature and opens up for us to understand nature each in our own way. And going out in the cold and wet can go a long way in that direction.


Seasonal visits are learning gold

One way to do that is to pick a place in nature – of some sort, a park will do, or a bit of runaway nature in a vacant lot if you live in the inner city – and visit it once or twice in each season. A late summer/early autumn visit will make a good start: if the weather is clement, have drawing boards and pads and have the children draw something they see. Do a meditation in the grass, on a bit of pavement, or under a tree. See how many different leaves the children can find; and draw and describe them. Encourage the children to notice other features of this spot in nature – fruits, flowers, kinds of plants, even animals. Invite the children to use their different senses to do the noticing. Ask what it reminds them of – experiences, movies, books, visits to grandparents, the sky’s the limit.


Be sure to anchor this trip by sharing on the way home, or the next day, and perhaps by linking some part of that visit to indoor schooling. One good way to anchor the visit is to hand out blank sheets with four boxes – like a four-part comic – and have them draw and write what they remember from the day before.


Then, go in the late fall or early winter. Go to the same place – make sure that everyone has appropriate clothing, bring hot chocolate and sit-me-downs (some sort of pad or tarp to sit on if it is cold and/or wet) – and plan for a shorter visit if the weather dictates.


This time, focus on what has changed and what has remained the same. There will be a lot to talk about and some surprises. Perhaps the trees still have berries – why? Or some trees and bushes still have leaves, or needles. Does it smell different? Sound different? Share experiences and memories – of this place and others like it. What books or movies does this place remind them of. What kind of story could be set here?


If the weather is really awful, the visit needn’t be that long, and a lot of the anchoring activities – talking and sharing and documenting can take place back indoors. If it’s possible, take pictures instead of drawing, and don’t forget to have a game of tag to keep everyone warm. Expect whining and cold fingers. Also red cheeks and laughter. Apply hot chocolate liberally.


Then go back for a look-see in the dead of winter, and in the spring, and in the early summer.


Have the children continue to document what they see and experience. Focus on those senses, on what changes and what stays the same. After a couple of visits, spend some time the day before – or on the trip there – talking about expectations. What do we think we will see, smell, hear or feel? Post the documentation in the classroom if you can, to be able to refer to it before and in between visits, and be sure to do so.


A few nuggets

There isn’t enough space in this blog to detail the rich learning to be gained from such a handful of visits. Here are a couple, though.


A concrete, sensory understanding of the seasons is extremely valuable, no matter the age of the children you work with. Adults overestimate children’s ability to put together the information they gain from various disciplines to form an adequate understanding of the changes our planet goes through, what they look like, and why they take place. Engaging in seasonal visits with lots of exploration, sensory learning, and focus on change and continuity not only teaches children something fundamental about the world they live in – which will be relevant to many disciplines and to their wider lives – it lays the ground for systems thinking. Experiencing the effects of light and heat and wet together with the plants and the animals – even in such a limited way – also sensitizes children to the bond they have with nature, the ways in which they partake in nature.


And importantly, only outdoor schooling when the weather is good and nature is inviting and easy, deprives children of a great deal of the learning I just mentioned.


So, don’t forget to head outside as the temperatures drop!


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