by Hazel Stark
In an educational world full of standards, mandates, and standardized tests, it is often important to reflect on the foundation of how humans have learned since the dawn of time. The staff of Cherryfield Elementary School in Cherryfield, Maine did just that this past week while engaged in a MOS professional development workshop.
Teachers were able to take much needed time to reflect on how their own outdoor play in special places during their childhoods led to lifelong understanding. This understanding was not a result of an explicit curriculum, but rather the emergent constructivist learning that our brains engage in on a daily basis due to the experiences we have. Through another activity, the teachers explored the peer-reviewed literature on place-based education to discover the benefits of connecting students to their backyards through outdoor experiences and special places—literature that backed up their own childhood learning experiences. This connection is best summarized by place-based education expert David Sobel in his book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators (2008), "Groveling around in the soil develops your ability to conceptually root out ideas. If our fingers continually just float above the keyboard, our minds will similarly just drive across the surface, never settling down, never developing a sense of place."
One teacher recounted her own time of playing on the train tracks behind her childhood home. She described how she distinctly remembered running barefoot on the tracks and feeling the temperature change throughout the seasons. During the summer the rails were searingly hot but come fall, the steel sucked all the warmth out of her mud-plastered feet: “Out there on the railroad tracks I learned about physics—conduction and heat loss.”
The teachers considered how they could leverage the innate learning that happens in an outdoor setting to reinforce their classroom curriculum. To help answer this question, MOS Co-Founder and Co-CEO Hazel Stark led the teachers in a “secret spot” activity in which the teachers were asked to spend just ten minutes engaged in different journal prompts, from mapping the sounds around their spot to writing poetry about it and drawing their observations.
Teachers not only made astute observations about the natural world in their secret spots, but also found the activity to be peaceful, relaxing, and much needed amidst the day-to-day chaos of the school environment. Perhaps this was the biggest take-away of all—developing in their students a sense of place through outdoor experiences, which is proven to improve attention spans and even test scores, is not only a highly educational practice, but also a practice that can be one of deep serenity, relaxation, and peace. Couldn't all students benefit from such an experience?
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