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Saskatoon Public Schools
Inspiring Learning

Outdoor experiences offer unique learning for kindergarten

June 17, 2019

It may appear to be play or simply burning-off energy, but when kindergarten students are experiencing the outdoors it's all about creating opportunities for students to channel their energy, enthusiasm and curiosity into unique learning experiences.

"Students are excited to take learning outdoors and excitement leads to engagement and deeper learning," says Shayna Thomas, a kindergarten teacher at Willowgrove School. "Outdoor learning provides opportunities for problem-solving skills, group work, cooperation, and challenges that differ from the classroom."

Bojana Dautbegovic-Krienke, an early learning consultant with Saskatoon Public Schools, says the opportunities presented to students and teachers when they are learning together outdoors are lessons that can't be replicated.

"We are connected to the land, but sometimes we forget that. When children have the ability to go on the land they think about what they do and how it affects the land and how the land is affecting them. They are not just reading about it and talking about it, they are immersed in it and their role," she said.

"The children can experience all of the senses at the same time but it's not overstimulating like our indoor environment. It quiets the mind and the body; all of the senses are activated."

The goal of school division's kindergarten learning community is to strengthen collective understanding of the early literacy components, mathematics and culturally competent teaching practices. Through explicit teaching, the use of intentional provocations and playful learning opportunities, teachers explore how to embed these concepts throughout the kindergarten day.

For teachers, providing students with experiences to learn on and about the land means discovering ways to integrate curriculum with what the outdoors offers. A recent professional learning opportunity saw kindergarten teachers explore the Saskatoon Natural Grasslands located near Silverspring School in the city's northeast. They walked the trials, studied native plants, rubbed sage between their fingers and discovered ways in which outdoor experiences can support learning in areas such as math, literacy, art and Indigenous learning.

"What we really want to see is teachers understand that learning doesn't just happen in our classrooms, within four walls. Learning and curriculum outcomes and connections can happen anywhere, including the outdoors," said Dautbegovic-Krienke.  "We are hoping they are going to go outside on a daily basis and provoke their students to look at the outdoors as an opportunity to learn."

Michelle Timm, who teaches at Sylvia Fedoruk School, says being outdoors provides kindergarten students with unique ways to show their learning through pictures and drawing and offers endless opportunities to count and represent with numbers. Learning from the land is also an immersive way to help students understand and value the significance of preserving the Earth.

"I have the privilege of having an outdoor learning space attached to my classroom, so we often extend the learning outdoors and also bring the outdoors in," Timm said. "Outdoor learning meets many curricular outcomes such as seasons, healthy lifestyles, treaty education, math, plants and animals, and extends our communication and writing in English language arts."

The experience of being out of the classroom inspires children's minds, teachers agree. It requires students to develop new approaches to meet the challenges they are presented with — whether that's walking over uneven ground, learning about plants and animals or discovering how to co-operate and work with others.

"When we are outside, where there are not necessarily as many rules and nothing is as dictated as it is in the classroom, children are actually more creative. They are more willing to take a risk. It's inspiring those different creative aspects of the mind," Dautbegovic-Krienke says.

"When we are talking about social skills, working in natural environments means children have to problem solve with their peers in different ways than they do in the classroom. The rules are suspended, and they have to come up with new ways to socialize with each other and also how to socialize with the land by being respectful."

Thomas says the outdoor experience allows her students to take an appropriate amount of risk. Successfully overcoming obstacles and challenges while still being supervised in a safe environment helps students build self-reliance, confidence and self-esteem.

It also helps them make deeper, more personal connections when it comes to learning about Indigenous people and culture, something that is an important part of curriculum.

"Being outside helps students to feel connected to nature. As this relationship with Mother Earth is fostered and built, children learn to respect the land we live on and the plants and animals we share our planet with," Thomas says. "Traditionally, First Nations groups would learn from the land. A lot of our First Nation, Inuit and Metis students connect and can relate to this type of learning."

Introducing children to the outdoors and nature at an early age is a valuable learning opportunity. Teachers say it's important for parents to encourage outdoor learning, whether it takes place in a school setting or is something as simple as exploring a neighbourhood park.

"Parents should be aware of all of the amazing things their children can learn outside that relate to curriculum, how this learning supports and extends what is taking place at school and how learning from the land has been taking place for generations in a variety of cultures," Timm said.

"Kindergarten students are now coming to school with less exposure to exploring and asking questions about the natural world around them. Research shows that gathering and creating resources with children makes the learning meaningful and the outdoors is a classroom that everyone has access to each and every day. Overall, students are happier, healthier and more knowledgeable when given the opportunity to spend more time outdoors." 

And at a time when there is growing recognition that too much screen time and a lack of physical activity can affect children both physically and mentally, an outside adventure at either school or home is a perfect way to engage children. 

"Playing outside and being outside is the antidote to all of the screen time we are having and all of the structure and anxiety that are children are experiencing," Dautbegovic-Krienke suggests.  "I think that is a really important thing for us to remember as parents. We want our children to have the best health and to be well-balanced. Part of being well-balanced is being outdoors."