CONNECTIONS Spring 2018

A Tale of Two Fields

NATURE-BASED EDUCATION at HOLLAND CHRISTIAN!

South Side Elementary has two kickball fields along its back fence, both carefully prepped and prepared exactly the same, with the right layers of sand, then clay, then a top layer of pea gravel, according to playground kickball field specifications. And both fields get used every single recess.

But in very different ways.

On one, students play the correct version of kickball according to national standards, organized, with rules that everyone understands. Or sometimes it’s soccer, or maybe even wiffleball every now and then. Kids run around in an orderly fashion, chasing a ball, tagging each other, self-refereeing.

The other field is way too bumpy to play kickball, and any kid who tried would twist an ankle or sprain a knee. Filled with burrows and tunnels, it’s definitely not recommended for any organized running sport. But it’s a great place for digging in the dirt, and for collecting specimens of clay, once you get under the shifting layer of pea gravel. Kids scatter around there each recess, happy and content with dirty fingernails and knees black with dirt. They collect their clay in carefully ziplocked baggies, create (even sell!) small clay figures from it.

Other learners respond well to open ended play. More like ‘I found a stick and three stones. What can I play with these tools that I found and I selected?’ Learning through play exhibits differently, and both are valuable—and both are learning.

Then all the kids from both fields trot back in after recess, some leaving more silt in the bathroom sink drains than others, stopping to pound more mud off their boots, but all settling in to Reading Workshop.

“In kindergarten at HC we value learning through play,” explained Miska Rynsburger, principal at South Side, as well as “overseer” of Holland Christian’s new Nature-Based Education Program. “For some learners, learning through play in a traditional classroom, with materials chosen for them by a teacher allows them to flourish. They take comfort in these materials prepared for them, and the learning provided by a teacher is how they grow best. Other learners respond well to open ended play. More like ‘I found a stick and three stones. What can I play with these tools that I found and I selected?'” she continues. “Learning through play exhibits differently, and both are valuable—and both are learning.”

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There’s power in allowing a little one to wander in nature and wonder in nature. Our culture has removed some of the wander/wonder, and we are able to bring some of that back.

And there is a growing body of research showing the importance of not just playing in nature, but also of using nature as the main educational classroom. Ever since Richard Louv’s groundbreaking 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, serious educators have paid more attention to using nature not merely as a resource, but as the main focus of and even setting for education. Louv created the term “nature deficit disorder,” which he defines as “the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness,” explaining that the “disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.”

Over the subsequent 13 years since Last Child in the Woods was published, as ADD and depression/anxiety diagnoses in young children, and all children, have only increased, researchers have found that putting kids back in nature through an educational setting can solve a long list of issues and benefit in very positive ways: There’s less sickness and fewer physical ailments, advanced motor fitness, and a greater ability to concentrate and self-regulate; improved awareness, reasoning, and observational skills; more imaginative and creative play that fosters higher language and collaboration skills; a greater understanding of interconnections, with a better ability to problem solve; stronger ability to handle adversity; reduced bullying, vandalism, littering, and other antisocial behaviors; an increased sense of wonder, which happens to be an important motivator for lifelong learning; a higher sense of independence and autonomy alongside decreased myopia; a greater sense of stewardship for our Earth…and the list goes on.

“There’s power in allowing a little one to wander in nature and wonder in nature,” adds Miska.  “Curiosity in nature has diminished in society through technology, perhaps, or the structures of team play already in place for young children. Our culture has removed some of the wander/wonder, and we are able to bring some of that back.”

So Holland Christian has decided to partner with the Outdoor Discovery Center (ODC), the area’s foremost expert on outdoor education, to create its Nature-Based Education program. Although the nature-based kindergarten class will be part of South Side Elementary, students will spend their days learning in and around the multi-acre wooded area nestled in the heart of the HC property on Ottawa Avenue, specifically behind, or to the west of the Middle School. All of us are excited about the possibilities that exist within that multiple-habitat space–room for trails, gathering spaces, outdoor classrooms, and natural playscapes. About half of class time will be spent outside, changing according to weather, but we’re also planning outdoor-focused classroom buildings, with the help of the ODC and GMB Architects. They’ll look a little different than traditional classrooms—outfitted with all natural play materials, glass garage doors for walls, drains in the middle of the floors so teachers can hose down the classrooms as needed, since brooms probably won’t do the trick.

We’re grateful to have the Outdoor Discovery Center as our partner, to help with lesson planning, teacher training, facilities advice, regular visits from ODC naturalists. And they are excited to help us teach the Holland Christian academic curriculum in an entirely new way. The ODC is currently developing certification standards for nature-based programs, and we look forward to helping them create those standards, while holding ourselves accountable to them as well.

So you can see we’re thrilled about the opportunity to educate in this manner, to partner with the ODC. We look forward to growing the program up a grade each school year as far as fifth grade? Sixth grade? Maybe even middle school, if there’s interest. But we’re especially excited about the spiritual ramifications of nature-based education that aren’t completely researched–yet!–but fit with HCS’s mission to nurture hearts and equip minds and bodies for transforming the world with our Saviour.

“As adults we use Scripture to understand who God is, and the Biblical narrative,” said Miska, “but as a young concrete learner, that can be pretty abstract. But when we stand in nature, we can see the providence of God caring for His creation as seasons change, and see it in a concrete way. The Bible points to nature all the time to show us who God is. By spending time in nature, students will see God [through His general revelation], understand Him in a visceral way, by watching Him as seasons come and go.”

So here we are this summer, stepping out in faith, following God’s lead in this, while we interviewed potential teachers, plot new buildings, plan classroom and trail design, and eagerly anticipate a new crop of kindergarteners glad to be in school outside. And asking for your prayers, as we look to serve another segment of students and families, while remaining true to our Christian heritage.

Photo below courtesy of Outdoor Discovery Center.

When we stand in nature, we can see the providence of God caring for His creation as seasons change, and see it in a concrete way. The Bible points to nature all the time to show us who God is.

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MEET MR. HARIG!

A few facts we’ve learned about Mr. Ron Harig, our new nature-based kindergarten teacher: He served in the United States Army and the Michigan National Guard. He graduated with honors from GVSU, and earned his M.A. in Early Childhood Education from GVSU as well. Immediately after graduation he was hired by Jenison Public Schools where over the years he has taught Young 5’s, 1st grade, and 2nd grade.

He and his wife, Stacey, were married in 1994, have two children, Jesse and Julia, and one dog, Harvey, a beloved Labradoodle. The family enjoys kayaking, boating on Lake Michigan, fishing, and hiking, and especially likes to do all those things in the area around Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

“I like to tell people that three of my great loves are Jesus, teaching kindergarteners, and the outdoors,” Ron Harig says. “That’s why Holland Christian’s Nature-Based Kindergarten is a perfect fit for me. I will thoroughly enjoy sharing my love of Christ in words, prayer, and praise with the students I teach, and I’ll also be showing them God’s undeniable existence in the outdoors!”

At Jenison Public Schools, he was known for creating and singing lots of children’s songs on his guitar, and he plans to fill his HC outdoor kindergarten classroom with music too–plus with new songs of praise, worship, and outdoor learning!

Connecting with his students has always been a top priority for Ron, since he has found that building relationships with his students helps breed trust, safety, and security, all of which are traits undergirding successful education. Plus, he likes to discipline through praise–he’s noticed that when students are getting attention and praise for doing what is expected, others start to follow those expectations without having to hear negative reminders.

“It is going to be incredible exploring God’s creation with kindergarteners at Holland Christian Schools,” Ron said. “God has been preparing me for this—my ideal job—all my life, and I lose sleep every night thinking about the possibilities!”

I will thoroughly enjoy sharing my love of Christ in words, prayer, and praise with the students I teach, and I’ll also be showing them God’s undeniable existence in the outdoors!

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