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There is a peace-filled atmosphere that is absolutely evident as we pull up to an outdoor classroom…We pause to praise the One True God, who certainly gave us a remarkable place to learn and grow.”

As difficult as this global pandemic is in so many ways, it is certainly compelling creativity. It’s causing us as educators to adapt and invent all sorts of clever ideas to make sure quality education still happens despite masks, distance learning, and social distancing. We’re working hard to not just survive the year, but even thrive.

And you can see it all throughout HC campuses: Third and fourth graders at Pine Ridge have nifty new PVC pipe water bottle holders attached to their desks so bottles won’t roll off desks and capture all those germs. Middle schoolers are using a wider variety of spaces to spread out and learn—in the media center, the front entranceway, the front walkway—and enjoy an outdoor break or two every day. High school bands practiced at Kollen Park for the first few months of school, enjoying impromptu listeners and changing fall scenery. All unexpected blessings, courtesy of creative thinking in tight, tricky situations.

But one of our favorite adaptive measures currently is taking kids outside to learn. And learn all subjects—math, reading, science, PE, Bible, band—more than you may expect.

“This year I kept asking, ‘Are we just trying to survive this coming year, or are we reimagining education to make learning better?’” said Sue Vos, fifth grade teacher at Rose Park. “When I see an opportunity to teach something outdoors, we go for it! And we’ve been blessed with more supports than we usually have—resources from the ODC [Outdoor Discovery Center], such as ‘Boot Camp,’ naturalists, consults,” along with regular ODC visits, or parents dropping off bikes for field trips.

And teachers are seeing some lovely unexpected benefits from teaching and learning outside.

Like spiritual benefits: “There is a peace-filled atmosphere that is absolutely evident as we pull up to an outdoor classroom,” first grade Rose Park teacher Sheila Dokter said. “My class now refers to a particular spot we go to often at Pigeon Creek as our ‘cathedral.’ We pause to praise the One True God, who certainly gave us a remarkable place to learn and grow. Now when we pull up, kids often remark, ‘We’re back in our cathedral!’”

“We couldn’t imagine a better place to hear the words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount than on a beautiful November day at Kamp David,” Sue Vos added. “On the side of a large pond, David Mosterd ’99 shared Jesus’ words with  us and reflected on what it means for God’s Kingdom to come to earth. These preteen fifth graders sitting on the side of the pond were not much different than the disciples Jesus first spoke those words to—‘Blessed are the poor in spirit/peacemakers/pure in heart’ on the hillside by the  Sea of Galilee so long ago.”

Fellow fifth grade teacher Stacy Rietman ’92 even overheard a group of boys remark how cool the experience was as they moved on to the next subject out in the forest.

Second graders at Rose Park have noticed more frequently “quiet things that point to God,” like God’s care for the chickadees, the ducks’ instinct for migration, the clever design of milkweed pods. “Their eyes have been wide open to see God’s handiwork,” said their teacher, Karina Schebor ’95, describing her favorite trip with her class to Hemlock Crossings: “It was a gorgeous October day. We began by having kids recite their Bible memory—Psalm 8 and Psalm 2—in English and Spanish by the Spanish Immersion students. Offering our praise and worship through reciting God’s holy word in such a beautiful hallowed place—God’s breathtaking fall sanctuary—was so beautiful and touching.”

Even social skills seem to develop differently when kids learn outside of the classroom in God’s creation.

Karen Strikwerda ’85 noticed her South Side kindergarteners increasing their collaboration skills in a variety of situations outside. Sometimes there are complaints of “They’re not doing it right!” and students ask teachers nearby for help, but then are verbally guided into solving their own problems: “‘What words could you use? How are you going to solve that problem?’” Karen said, “giving them the skills to solve the problem themselves. Collaboration is a big thing to work on in the classroom—but then to see it in the outdoors is really rewarding.”

When South Side first graders first started visiting Kamp David, they typically liked to run up and down the hill or throw rocks into the pond. But over time, their teachers Michelle Engbers and Karen VanMeeteren started noticing more collaborative, creative play—their students began building bridges, working together to carry the logs and improve design. Or played tic tac toe together with sticks in the beach sand, or designed pictures out of found natural objects.

“The kids absolutely love it, and it’s fun to see what they come up with,” Michelle said. Plus “They’re really looking at nature with new eyes,” added Karen.

Behavior and attitudes get adjusted: “I am only just starting to use the outdoors for our learning but I have noticed a dramatic turn in morale/attitude,” said Billy Meyering, fourth grade teacher at Pine Ridge. “The students simply enjoy being outdoors and in a more ‘free form’ of working and structure.”

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There is so much benefit to experiencing God’s world and noticing His fingerprints, rather than just reading about the world He made.

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And learning can often be more memorable outside: “We were reading outside in forts we had built when I looked over to see a group of kids running around their fort in a circle. ‘Oh, Mrs. Dokter, our fort is the sun and we’re the asteroids that are circling it! Did you know an asteroid is a big rock in space? Look—it’s right here in our book!’” Sheila Dokter said. “I was pretty amazed at the engagement and creativity of these young learners. I know to my core, this learning was sparked by the atmosphere of nature we were embedded in. They truly come alive…”

All teachers admitted there was a bit of a learning curve, that kids needed to be taught how to learn outside, and that “Things feel a bit bumpy and uncomfortable when we try to take our curriculum outside,” Sue Vos said. “It’s not always easy to let go of control as teachers when we take the boundaries of the classroom away. On the other hand, we feel freedom to do things differently and we want the outdoor experience because we know there are many benefits, but we also want our students to find meaning in the experience.”

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So HC teachers have been intentional and creative about what kids are learning outside. Obviously reading fits well outside, so now students are accustomed to carrying their beach towels outside for reading, and get creative about how to block the sun from their iPads or laptops when they need to do work outside. Rose Park second grade Spanish Immersion teacher Andrea Cantu teaches math placement using leaves, rocks and sticks to mark the 100s, 10s, and 1s places for math numbers. Other students practiced spelling words with jump ropes, a jump for each letter, using kinesthetic learning as well. Bible stories become more memorable and meaningful when drawn on sidewalks with chalk, or acted out in natural shelters.

The trick obviously becomes what to do in winter, since most kids don’t have the benefit of Oaki suits like the Forest School kids. But teachers are still interested in making learning work outside as much as possible. They’re still planning regular visits to Kamp David, the ODC, or Pigeon Creek Hemlock Crossing, Stu Visser trails, or even on their own playgrounds and green spaces around the schools—just with the addition of snow pants and boots for warmth—for as long as we are able to teach in person.

“Students really enjoy working outside; they are alert, eager, attentive and curious. They take delight in the beauty around them—fall leaves, running down a hill on the trail…it’s such a great way to do school,” Karina Schebor finished. “There is so much benefit to experiencing God’s world and noticing His fingerprints, rather than just reading about the world He made.”