In many schools, there exists a false dichotomy between the indoors and outdoors. An unusual belief seems to have taken hold whereby the indoors are identified as the location where children are to do work intellectually, and the outdoors is the place where they are to play in their bodies uncontrollably. Now, certainly the outdoors is more conducive to gross motor activities and some slightly different rules ought to apply for safety, but we believe that that line between the two is far from clear. We believe that we should think outside and stretch our bodies inside. In short, children are not disembodied heads when they walk through the doors of their classroom, nor should they be “disem-headed” bodies when they are outside. To this end, we treat the outdoors primarily as an extension of the practical life area of the classroom but also as a place to expand on children’s exposure to the sciences, math and language activities and a place to increase their sensorial exposure to the world.
To the extent possible (which is to say, weather and ratios permitting) we like the outdoors to be continually available to the children. Independence is one of the primary goals of the practical life area of the classroom and as such we feel that children are best served when they can decide for themselves when they need to be outside and when they would prefer to be indoors. They have and are developing their own internal regulators and loci of control and we would encourage that they learn to identify for themselves when they need to move and when they need to be still; when they need sunlight and when they need to warm their cold, pink hands indoors.
The out of doors is also a great place to improve their abilities to care for plants and animals. This spring, we hope to expand on this and build some raised beds for gardening as well as to add goats, chickens, and ducks to our rabbits and fish, so that our students have many such opportunities to practice the daily care of other living things and to experience firsthand processes of agriculture as well as the life cycle itself.
Whether digging for fossils, tending a garden, or counting tree rings, the nature based outdoor environment allows not just an understanding of how the “inside” world is applied, but a deep appreciation for nature itself. Maria Montessori wrote
“There must be provision for the child to have contact with Nature, to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in Nature …. so the child may better understand and participate in the marvellous things which civilisation creates”
We do not believe that children can learn about the world we intend for them to inhabit in rooms with no windows. Natural light, wood, stone, metal, and plants are the things they wish to experience on a sensory level. Plastic zigzags and squishy rocks are no replacement for real trees dropping leaves, real chickens laying eggs or real goats chewing on fence posts. We encourage our children to learn about the world not by being outside observers but by being in it; a part of it.
Another opportunity afforded to children outdoors is to care for others as well as themselves and their environment. With faster movement and gross motor comes more opportunities for collisions with fellow students. Larger building projects allow more interaction in larger groups that creates opportunities for the children to come into conflict with their cohorts. These experiences are important so that they can learn to be conscious of their personal space and that of their friend’s. They are also given the opportunity to learn to navigate difficult social circumstances involved in conflict resolution and healthy interaction with their peers.
Finally, a purpose of practical life that is well, and perhaps even better served outdoors, is the care of self through learning to recognize and mitigate risk. Though we don’t wish to believe it, since these are our “hearts on legs” running around in the world, risk does exist, and children do see and recognize this fact even if we as parents refuse to. To overcome their fears regarding it they engage in a process of limit testing that allows them to learn how far and fast they can go, how heavy they can lift, how high they can jump or climb, how tall they can build and how much they can endure. Though we emphatically do not wish to see them actually hurt, we do want to afford them the opportunity to fulfill their needs for exploration and risk mitigation. The trick then, lay in providing materials outdoors that create the feeling of risk without the actual risk of injury. The plastic, sterile environments that are commonly used are of very little interest to children as they often sense, almost immediately, the fakeness and, in fact, the safety of it. To avoid this we attempt to utilize primarily natural materials with rough edges: Places they can fall from, things they can learn to balance on, areas where they can bump their elbows, and so forth, all provide them the relatively safe opportunity to learn to understand risks and care for their own bodies. The lessons learned from skinned knees are an invaluable part of their development, and to take from them the opportunity to learn early to care for themselves, to test their limits, and navigate risk is to ensure that they will either test these limits much later when the stakes are higher or worse, or never test them at all and be fearful of their failures and mistakes rather than delighted at the opportunities for growth that only our failures and mistakes can grant us.
We see it as a place for the building of Giant forts, the rolling of tires, the feeding of animals, and the skinning of knees. We see it as a place to experience failures and learn from them without regret. A place to learn our limits and respect for our bodies. To work by ourselves or alone. In short, we see our outdoor environment as an indispensable extension of our classroom and an inseparable part of understanding and navigating life.