by Anne Pyburn Craig
Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. While bureaucrats declare recess expendable, studies are piling up that indicate that time spent outdoors actually improves test scores.
It’s actually not even news. Educators have been discussing the huge social, emotional, and intellectual benefits of active play and its cousin outdoor education since the outset of the 20th century and probably earlier than that. Confidence, perseverance, risk assessment, problem solving ability, self-discipline—a host of skills that common sense tells us are far more important to a well-lived life than any fact that could ever be memorized—are best learned away from a desk.
Maybe someday the policymakers will understand what many teachers and parents already know. But around the Hudson and Rondout valleys, people aren’t necessarily holding their collective breath awaiting that moment of revelation. A host of programs exist that get kids up and out and doing in the forest, on the farm, and on the river.
|Photo by Maggie Heinzel-Neel, courtesy of Wild Earth.|
It starts young, as it should. Motria Shuhan is the director of the Acorn Schoolhouse, a Waldorf preschool for ages two to six located in Accord. A firm believer in the planetary classroom, she says of her school, “We spend huge amounts of time outdoors. Being outdoors allows children to become expansive in their play, and play is the number one vocabulary with which children come to understand the world and how to be an effective participant. Play is the serious business of childhood, and nature gives them the freedom to relax into that. Children who struggle with inside spaces have no struggle at all outdoors—they’re able to devote their energy to comprehension.”
Motria points out that much of the extensive (and expensive) equipment required to offer well rounded early childhood education indoors becomes irrelevant outside, where nature provides an endless supply of learning materials. “You don’t have to construct anything in particular,” she says. “It’s all right there: physical development, sensory integration, social development, emotional development. In January, you might have two feet of snow, which just provides all kinds of new opportunities. Rain, mud, things coming out of the ground in spring, birds building nests—every change just offers a whole new planet of opportunities.
“You don’t have to artificially create ‘activities’ to hold their interest. They’re eager to learn: what is the world? How do I fit in and understand and be part of things? What happens when I pile up mud or dig a hole? How do I climb a tree? Maybe the child can’t reach the bottom branch yet—they learn to wait, and then a year later they can, and they see their own capability grow. That’s a huge lesson, waiting for growth. A lot is done for children out of good intentions; people who love a child are deeply saddened when the child is disappointed, and they’ll rush to fix the problem, which leaves the child unable to develop his own capacity to overcome difficulty. We need to let children fall down and stand back up again; opportunities for that in a typical school setting or neighborhood have greatly diminished, but there’s a lot of that in nature.”
Besides her work at the Acorn School, Motria works with the youngest children at Wild Earth, a New Paltz-based educational program that offers nature opportunities for kids of all ages and adults. Wild Earth brings nature programming to schools around the region with Coyote Explorers, afterschool programs for kids in grades K through 12 in which experienced instructors introduce youngsters to things as varied as birdsong and wild plant identification and rousing games of camouflage capture-the-flag. Wild Earth also offers True North, overnight outdoor adventures for middle schoolers that allow them to explore who they are, who they are becoming, and who they would like to be, with just enough guidance and the benefit of that vast outdoor classroom. The program culminates in a 24-hour solo coming-of-age experience for eighth graders that may just be one of the best things to happen to puberty in a long time.
The experience of older kids is much like what Motria describes with her tiny ones: divisions and tensions fall away, leaving room to learn and truly thrive. “We don’t get to see them with such abandoned joy all that often. They sang us all the songs they learned today, and not one of them wasn’t singing full out,” a nonprofit leader has marveled to the Wild Earth folks.
Wild Earth also runs programs for educators, immersing them in nature in team-building, awareness-raising, and experiential programs that hopefully will leave them fully refreshed and eager to pass the benefits along to the young.
As stated, smart educators have always realized the vast benefits of field and forest. And even while struggling under the weight of bureaucratic requirements, they manage to get kids outdoors at least some of the time.
The benevolent conspiracy between local school districts and the Mohonk Preserve is a classic example. Most people who’ve attended school in the area in the past couple of decades have memories of the “Mohonk trips.” And as requirements for public school curricula have tightened, the good folks on the hill have gotten exceedingly articulate about advocating for what they do, in language that should sway even the toughest sceptic. “Choose a field study experience to meet your class’s objectives and goals,” suggests a Mohonk website section entitled The Preserve as a Learning Lab. “Our education programs meet the Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and New York State Learning Standards and can be tailored according to your needs.”
The programs are a carefully designed breath of true fresh air in a test-driven world, implemented in the stunning classroom that is the Shawangunk Mountains, by people who know the territory inside and out. The scientific education possible with programs such as “A Day in the Woods: The Diversity of Life,” “Stream Ecology: Evolution and Survival,” and “Rocks and Ridgelines” is obvious. Preserve educators have taken it farther, with history and social science studies that uncover traces of the Lenni Lenape and the early settlers of the Trapps hamlet and much, much more.
Still more eco-education makes its way into local schools through the efforts of the venerable Clearwater organization, whose educators strive daily to fulfill the legacy of Pete Seeger and impart a sense of the Hudson River’s many gifts to the young. On the sloop and on the shore, Clearwater offers programming in not just ecology and related sciences but in music, art, English, history, social studies and engineering that will allow even the most test-stressed educator to recognize time outside as time well spent.
So how does all of this happen? And what if you don’t feel that your child is getting enough of it? The good folks at Teaching the Hudson Valley (a Hyde Park-based program developed under the auspices of the National Park Service) are striving daily to grow this sector of the regional educational scene. “”We cover 11 counties, which is a big region,” explains program coordinator Deborah Duke. “We do two things, mainly: professional development for teachers and educators, and getting grants into the hands of teachers and youth group leaders so they can get out of the classroom into cool places.” Deborah notes that the Hudson Valley is simply bursting with cool places, but says that the basic concepts apply no matter where you are. “Kids just learn better if they can make the connection between their school, their family, their community, and the world around them,” she says. “We help teachers give kids the tools so that wherever they end up living, they’ll know how to be actively involved.”
Undeniably, this area is rich in possibilities. Besides those mentioned above, there are the agricultural programs of the Hawthorne Valley and Farm On! Foundations on the east bank of the Hudson and opportunities offered by the community colleges and Cornell Cooperative Extensions. No matter how hard the forces of economics may seem to try to squeeze it dry, education around here is a juicy endeavor.
Teaching the Hudson Valley, founded in 2003, is a relatively new nexus of coordination for efforts that have been under way for decades and is happily developing partnerships with groups like Clearwater, Mohonk, and more. The overall goal is to foster “collaboration among schools, museums, parks, historic sites, art galleries, libraries, and other groups.” Besides the funding parents and teachers can apply for, there’s a growing database of free lesson plans available to all. “We just funded a group that’s taking students to the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, and we’re partnering with Mohonk on a workshop for educators on ways to make sure that special needs students also have full access to the parks and preserves,” says Deborah Duke. “What we try to do is encourage teachers to think outside the box about how they present material and how it connects to kids’ lives. It’s pretty clear, no matter what theory of education you may subscribe to, that to forget about the real world is a big mistake.”
In the Spotlight: Kite’s Nest
|Photo courtesy of Kite’s Nest.|
Kite’s Nest is a holistic education resource in Hudson that offers workshops for children and teens—everything from afterschool programs to 10-week courses and summer camps. The Kite’s Nest educational goals are to support the cultivation of multiple literacies (head, hands, and heart), social and emotional learning, critical thinking, and lifelong learning. Their model uses a variety of modes of inquiry including thematic and project based learning, exploration and expression, and exposition. Like Motria at the Acorn School, the folks at Kite’s Nest place great value on play. “We believe that joy, pleasure, curiosity, physical expression, and fun are crucial and necessary components of a successful and meaningful learning environment! We also honor play as a crucial way that children learn to solve problems, get along with their peers, and become emotionally resilient. We believe that play, self-directed exploration, and story are legitimate forms of inquiry, and important ways that children construct their own knowledge and understanding of the world.”
So what does their programming look like? Well for example, from July 20 to 24, Kite’s Nest will host their famous Potions Camp, a weeklong workshop in which children learn to forage, process, and “imbibe the seasonal bounty around us.” Through story and imaginative play, they learn about the properties of local plants and how to turn that material into healthy, useful products—naturally fermented sodas, salves, tinctures, dyes, and more. Wonderfully, it all ends in an herbal wellness “clinic,” run by children for other children.
Give Me Shelter is a 10-week course that Kite’s Nest hosted last fall, which taught kids to consider the things they need for survival; the role of community in survival; and the difference between needs, wants, and desires. The group made a lists of what they needed and then got to work figuring out how to make each item, learning skills like weaving and how to build a cob oven. In the end, students go home with individual survival kits of useful objects they’ve fashioned themselves.
By involving students in the conception, creation, and exposition of a variety of projects, Kite’s Nest provides a platform for their empowerment. Text by Marie Doyon. Photo at left courtesy of Kite’s Nest.