Tykes at Raintree School, a forestry school located on 11 wooded acres in Town & Country, examine a giant puffball mushroom. Is it an egg left by an alien? They proceed to its dissection. “And that starts a week-long investigation,” says school principal Ilya Eydelman.
Students at the school spend 30 to 50 percent of their time outdoors, whether they play in the natural play landscape and wooded areas of campus, garden, or cook lunch. The philosophy is driven by studies that link time spent outdoors to helping children excel socially, emotionally, and academically. There is, of course, a structured program, but there is also room to explore.
Such an approach is particularly timely – just as COVID-19 precautions attracted people to restaurant patios and parks, many educators have started running classes outdoors. For some St. Louis schools where outdoor learning is already built into lesson plans, these precautions have come naturally.
At the community school, which spans 18 acres in Ladue, students go out in all weather. They bring sleighs to school when it snows, for example, to enjoy a big hill on campus.
Teacher and adventure education coordinator Kevin Parentin says a common joke at Webster Groves College is that students always need raincoats and rain pants, no matter the weather. . This readiness and adaptability mindset existed in school before the pandemic, but over the past year, it has helped students seamlessly transition to COVID-related safety precautions.
It’s no different at Waldorf School in St. Louis, where administrator Theresa Dobson says the philosophy is “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.” Students and teachers are taught to dress like onions, that is, to use many layers in winter.
Before the pandemic, students in the Waldorf School early years program spent just over three hours a day outdoors. This year, however, the nap was really the only time spent indoors. “Everything they do indoors, they do outdoors,” says Dobson. Students played in the meadow and garden on campus and climbed trees. The first graders learned their letters by skipping rope and singing songs on the tennis court while the second graders took a similar approach to learning multiplication. A large tent was erected to cover an outdoor classroom with individual logs spaced 6 feet apart and a cob oven for use in cold weather. The students practiced cursive with sidewalk chalk. Fifth and sixth graders learned to crochet at nearby Ivory Crockett Park. Teachers have also used this park for lessons and hiking opportunities, along with Whitecliff Park, the Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, and Emmenegger Nature Park.
The college school “has been rooted in experiential learning since its inception,” says Parentin. The school’s 28-acre LaBarque campus near Pacific also offers an eco-friendly learning center, outdoor classroom and pavilion, and a plaza that doubles as a solar observatory. Kindergarten children spend a day in the woods, where they are guided through an exploration of nature. When fifth graders visit Shaw Nature Reserve, they carefully catalog and tag the butterflies. Sixth grade students learn both technical and non-technical survival skills. Eighth grade students take an eco-friendly trip, with whitewater rafting and hiking over a period of approximately nine days.
Education extends beyond the natural world; the pupils also discover the city. Grade 3 students learn about the historic Italian neighborhood of Hill and the Latin American community of Cherokee Street. Grade 7 students conduct formal and informal interviews in a podcast series that explores issues as important as the Delmar Divide and recreational green spaces.
The community school has a guiding principle to “open a child’s eyes to the wonders of nature, the stars, the universe and the world around them”. Nearby the school are woods, a pond and nature trails for students to explore. On frequent trips to the pond, second-graders learn about ecosystems, for example. Students learn about the concept of vertebrates and invertebrates by finding the exoskeletons of small insects or animals while walking the trails. All grade levels use the new treehouse classroom. In addition to traditional school subjects, students also engage in mindfulness activities, such as poetry and yoga.
This year allowed the community school sustainability committees, led by adults and students, to reimagine what sustainability looks like on campus. In addition to daily practices such as recycling and sourcing local foods, classes introduced composting, which grew out of a lunchtime cohort system that confined each class to their classroom. The service learning student council also launched a community gardens initiative, which involved every student in one way or another.
The emphasis on the outdoors and adventure education at all of these schools is aimed at fostering independent students with a set of essential leadership skills. Parentin often hears the same comments about alumni: “They all seem to behave like leaders. “
Space to innovate
To encourage young innovators, schools create a space for students to develop STEM skills in engaging and practical ways. Principia School recently partnered with Creative Learning Systems to open two IDEA Labs anchored in project-based learning, where students can choose their own projects, whether it’s developing a website or organizing a drone flight competition. “If we are to be problem solvers, innovators and creative thinkers, we need to have more porous walls,” says Melanie Shedd, STEM lab facilitator, head of the school’s science department, who is eager to share. space with the community. New City School also recently opened its Tom Hoerr Innovation Lab, a space named in honor of its longtime former school principal. The laboratory is equipped with 3D printers, laser printers, sewing machines, a carpentry station, an educational kitchen and other tools. The space provides an opportunity for students, says current school principal Alexis Wright, to “build and tinker and dream and fail and get up.”