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By Beth Bailey, Director of Marketing and Communications at The Harley School, featuring interviews with Dr. Terry Fonda Smith, The Harley School’s Head of Lower School, and Kim Bednarcyk, Nursery faculty member

This article has been submitted for inclusion in Independent School magazine, published by the National Association of Independent Schools.

“Before the pandemic students at many schools were often indoors, seated at desks, utilizing whiteboards—a sort of state where children were removed from the world in order to learn about it. This past year impacted how and where kids learn; with the opportunity and expectation to be outside as much as possible, our faculty did a bit of a reset—and before long the great outdoors became the preferred and primary learning space,” says Head of Lower School, Dr. Terry Fonda Smith.

For over one hundred years, The Harley School’s Nursery-Grade 12 students spent time outside: they ice skated on a nearby creek, built makeshift shelters in our nature center, or spent time studying while enjoying springtime sunshine. However, this year being outside took on new importance. Keeping everyone safe during COVID meant our faculty changed up and redeveloped the student day to maximize a variety of outdoor experiences—as well as significantly increasing time spent outside. 

What have we learned?

The pandemic allowed us to feel positive about shedding the shell of the physical classroom. Being outdoors is a great prompt for teaching, and being in nature allows everyone to have multi-sensory, heightened experiences just by stepping through a doorway. Humans’ ability to take in information and set the stage for multifaceted learning moments increases with outside time. A study by Ming Kuo, Matthew H. E. M. Browning, and Milbert L. Penner revealed that lessons in nature leave students more able to engage in their next lesson, even as they are busy learning the material at hand. This “refueling in flight” advocates for including more lessons in nature as part of formal education. ( Once a class is outside, what teachers do and how everyone learns inherently changes because of the setting.

Our faculty have always felt positive about being in nature with students, but the pandemic made teachers rethink how students were literally equipped to learn outdoors. Every child had rain boots, a raincoat, and a change of clothes for when they got wet or cold outside. The schedule was adapted to allow for changing time from when the students returned from being outdoors. We embraced the statement: “there is no bad weather, just bad [insufficient] clothing.”

Time outdoors gives learners more authentic opportunities to be scientists, to take risks, and to stretch their comfort zones. There is a quality of letting nature lead when teaching outside. For example, visiting Harley’s pollinator garden might lead to a lesson about bees, or where food comes from, or our regional climate. Teachers can then leverage where students’ questions and observations take a lesson which allows for students to learn in an integrated way.

The physical education curriculum at Harley was completely adapted this year so every class could be held outdoors, no matter what the weather. From practicing golf in the snow to cross-country running in drizzling rain, students were challenged in different ways. And the students loved it! Brains and bodies can take in an amazing amount of information when outdoors, it is a great prompt for kids to connect with each other. 

Every year at Harley we hold a Lower School Focus Week. Our entire Lower School explores one big essential question or topic, such as: transportation, China, or oceans. This year everyone dug into “The Great Outdoors”—a very timely topic. Grade 2, for example, studied birds and visited a wildlife sanctuary; another class learned about national parks and shared their work with the other classes. Specials teachers, such as our Maker Educator, created “Camp Harley” in our sustainable Commons building, turning one of the rooms into a campsite with tents and a “campfire.” Guest speakers shared information such as: how to give first aid to a teddy bear or all about what a park ranger does at their job. There are big connections students can make when everyone is thinking about the same topic. The best part? Nobody is an expert, everyone has something to contribute and to learn.

What should we hang on to?

Being outside this year for school has inspired our families’ ideas of what to do with their kids. We have shared photos of nearby locations students visited that were recommended by the school to explore. As families change up their relationship to the outdoors and find such experiences are fueling both curiosity and excitement in their children, their relationship to nature can shift. Students began to understand the environment in new ways; and this boosts their feelings about taking care of the world around them and their own ideas about environmental stewardship of the planet. 

The world is smaller and more accessible

The necessary use of technology to connect during the pandemic has allowed students greater access to valuable, regional resources and places with their own expanded, remote programming, such as the Monterey Aquarium or Yellowstone National Park. In this way, the world becomes smaller and more accessible; and through live cams or video talks, students are provided with a larger framework and context. Interests fostered outdoors are now able to be broadened thanks to connections that might not have been previously possible. Using technology to reach out and connect with places and people we couldn’t otherwise access helps expand an already well-rounded program.

The more we can foster opportunities for kids to learn authentically in context, the greater their hunger to learn more. Now is an opportune moment to consider what we’re doing in the classroom and how it complements what we’re doing outside of it, so students experience the best learning mix possible. “Learning happens everywhere, of course, but being in nature provides a saturated and fully-stocked environment you can’t replicate indoors,” says Dr. Smith. “It’s so potent and saturated—there’s so much to learn, ask any child, the outdoors is endlessly exciting.”

How do you see this changing education moving forward?

Having everyone outside so much causes faculty to examine and reprioritize how they are teaching. The nursery classes spent more time in our nature center this year and, as one of the teachers, Kim Bednarcyk, observed, “Increased playtime there forced the kids to stop relying on toys so much and get into a lot more creative, nature-based play. 

Each day there was something new they were drawn to, and everyone would play together in the same area; however, by the end of the year, each child had their own favorite section they loved and would gravitate toward.Their play evolved, even though they were in the same areas, they were able to draw others into what was appealing or compelling to them…sharing play ideas, building on and incorporating others’ to expand the play scenarios in their familiar settings.”

Students deserve the living laboratory of the outdoors; they are limited without these types of experiences. This is why so many independent schools are committed to sending students on hands-on trips. “Taking our students to Boston for three days, for example, is more powerful than a three-week unit on early American history,” says Dr. Smith. “If we’re smart, we will figure out the best environment (which will be different given the content and level)…authentic, relevant learning is always the best.