Sabot at Stony Point’s weekly schedule includes stretches of unstructured learning time, during which students can explore nature in a park near the school. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
It’s Friday morning, and a group of kindergartners and first-graders from Sabot at Stony Point, a small private school off Huguenot Road, is playing in The Forest, also known as Lewis G. Larus Park, the 106-acre, mostly wild, city park that adjoins the school.
Three children pile into a shelter made of logs that lean against the scaly trunk of a loblolly pine — presumably created over the course of previous Friday mornings in The Forest. One boy identifies it as a teepee, another a stick fort, still another a hideout. Meanwhile, a couple of children climb the branches of a nearby sycamore tree while a larger group clambers over boulders. Some sit on the handrail-free bridge, swinging their rain-booted feet above the brackish water of the creek below, while others balance on a fallen tree trunk that crumbles under their weight in patches where termites have feasted.
Students enjoy outdoor learning at Sabot at Stony Point’s Nature Day. (Photo by Ash Daniel)
First-grade teacher Christine Mingus notices the concern on the face of our photographer. “Several years ago, when I first came into The Forest with the children as a student teacher,” she says, “it challenged all my urban teacher sensibilities. How do you keep the children away from poison ivy? How do you stop them from hurting each other with sticks? What if someone falls off a rock? But with each visit, I saw the children learn what to look out for, and I realized that with coaching, they can learn to recognize and respect boundaries and how to avoid potentially dangerous situations. This is not careless, but carefree, activity where children take safe risks and support each other in ways far differently than they might inside the classroom.”
When the children go back into the classroom, Mingus says, they have challenged themselves against their environment, and there is no need to challenge each other with behaviors that interrupt learning time.
Three girls take turns running up to the edge of a low cliff and jumping into the creek below in their rain boots. Their rain boots soon fill with water. One of the girls sits down in the creek, a wide grin on her face, and her friends soon follow suit. Their laughter floats up toward the top of the tree canopy; none of the teachers seems perturbed. “It’s a good thing our moms packed us a change of clothing,” says the instigator of the impromptu swim. (Full disclosure: I am one of these moms. My middle daughter will be bringing home muddy clothes for me to wash.)
Kindergarten teacher Mary Driebe says parents sometimes ask about the learning that goes on in the midst of all this fun. “Children do not need us to structure their learning in The Forest, but rather they need us to preserve large spaces of time to just be and exist in nature. Young children given the opportunity to play in The Forest will later become world citizens stewarding the space that so captured their early curiosity and imagination.”
This weekly time for unstructured play in the outdoors is not the reality in most of our nation’s schools. According to a 2005 study published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine (now JAMA Pediatrics), American children were spending half as much time outdoors as they did 20 years earlier. Given that shift, it should be no surprise that kids between the ages of 8 and 18 devoted more than 53 hours a week to using entertainment media, the Kaiser Family Foundation found in a national survey released in 2010. Childhood has moved indoors.
The physical and mental benefits for children who spend time in nature range from the more obvious, such as increased fitness and Vitamin D levels and reduced stress, to the less obvious, such as reduced symptoms of ADHD, improved scores on standardized tests and better social interactions.
With all the positive benefits of playing outdoors, it seems counter-intuitive for schools to limit recess time, cut down on field trips, assign numerous hours of homework and give children more time with technology rather than real experiences.
“We want our children to solve the problems of the world when they grow up, yet we have removed independent play in the outdoors from their lives, and without it, children have very little context for their connection with the world and very little empathy for the world,” says Cary Jamieson, director of the Bryan Innovation Lab, a creative space for experiential learning at the Steward School.
The mission of getting children into the outdoors is so close to Jamieson’s heart that she helped launch the Sustainability and Nature Institute for Educators at the University of Richmond, one of the first programs of its kind in the country to help teachers learn how to build outdoor spaces from the ground up. Its holistic approach includes helping teachers identify and write grants to fund these spaces.
One of the schools in Richmond that has long recognized the value of outdoor time for children is Richmond Montessori. Green space adjoins every classroom on the campus off North Parham Road, butterflies flit above flowers, birdfeeders dot the large expanses of lawn, and a small creek runs through the woods. I watch two preschoolers filling their watering cans from a rain barrel, a preschooler sweeping the patio where two of his classmates are making art, and two small girls walking across the lawn, swinging buckets of leftover food to throw into the composter. There is a classroom job for a bug catcher, since there is no bug “smushing” here. Children eat lunch outdoors, there is unstructured play in the Wishing Woods, and lessons are taught in the screened Bird House that sits in the middle of the woods.
“When the children are in the woods, they are definitely more collaborative in their play than they are on the playground, and their play is more imaginative,” says Stacy O’Shea, a lower elementary lead teacher. Michelle Fojtik, an upper elementary lead teacher, has noticed that introverted children are almost transformed in nature. The students who are quiet in class are often the ones instigating a game of tag in the woods.
Not all schools have the privilege of owning, or even having access to, open land. But there are still ways to bring children outdoors daily. Julisa Smith, a teacher of 3- to- 6-year-olds at Richmond Montessori, says that when she taught in New York City, they would take the children to play in what they called the “Bird Cage,” a rooftop garden covered by a tall mesh dome. Making the most of available space is a challenge Jamieson addresses when mentoring teachers.
Bon Air Presbyterian Preschool (BAPP) has the advantage of being able to use a parcel of church-owned land next to the campus. For two years, preschool teacher Jim McCullough has been running a Forest Camp on this undeveloped land, which is a concept based on European Forest Kindergartens where children spend 90 percent of their time outdoors. At BAPP, children sign up for a once-a-week camp that continues the entire school year. “We want children to experience the changes in nature over different seasons. And no children have ever refused to go to Forest Camp because of the weather.”
McCullough says that children can take risks in the forest. “Nature calibrates to the kids. Some kids will climb to the top of the upturned tree root; others will play at the foot of it until they are ready.” When they are not testing themselves, the children have “sit” spots where they quietly observe nature. After this, they always have lots of questions for McCullough, which is the way he likes it. “Children are naturally curious. My role is not to come out here and give a botany lecture, but to offer prompts or provocations that encourage the children to think about things.” McCullough’s intent is to expand the Forest Camp into a European-style Forest Preschool where children spend most of every day outdoors.
Back in Larus Park, the Sabot students have all gathered around the teepee. A child pushes one of the logs, and it falls to the soft, damp earth of the forest floor. A cheer goes up. The children take turns tipping the logs over. A boy picks up one of the lighter logs from the pile, walks over to where his classmates have been jumping into the creek, and tosses the log into the water. Two boys follow, carrying a heavier log between them, and toss it into the creek. The next log is even heavier, and a third boy lines himself up on the side to help, but still they cannot lift it. A tall girl takes her place on the other side. The log is manageable now, and slowly they carry it, keeping in step with each other and, in wordless synchrony, toss the log into the creek. Soon, the teepee has been completely dismantled. One of the girls tries to cross the creek using the bridge the children have just built. The logs roll, she stumbles, and the children hurry to make adjustments so the crossing is safer.
A sing-song call of “First grade, line up!” sends the children running to assemble for a head count. The creek-swimming girls wrap their arms around themselves for warmth in the deep shade. As they all begin their hike back to school for lunch, I hear the squelch of water in rain boots.