By. Amy Powers, co-founder and principal, Program Evaluation and Educational Research Associates
“It is something we’ve lost touch with – the fact that play is a child’s work.” – Hartland Administrator
It is barely 9:00am on a January morning in Vermont, and Hartland Elementary School kindergarteners are on a mission. Crunching lunches into backpacks, stomping into giant boots, the bustling is surprisingly methodical, self-directed, and at a noticeably low volume. It is Wednesday in the Woods, and when the 30 or so children and their six accompanying adults cross the fence at the edge of the neatly mowed playing fields into the 17 acres of forested hills behind the school, their classroom is transformed.
Their usual route to this outdoor classroom is down a steep hill, using a rope strung from tree to tree as a handrail. Today, however, the class is faced with a problem. Vermont’s often erratic winter weather has replaced their trail down with a sheet of ice. Before even arriving at their learning space, the class is faced with a problem-solving, team building activity whose authenticity one could not begin to invent in the classroom: how will we get down this hill safely together?
For the next twenty minutes the students are testing their courage, their bodies, their knowledge of the area and of winter conditions, and their understanding of who they can help and rely on. Some (including one paraprofessional!) are inching down on their bottoms; others, otter-like in their confidence, sail down on their bellies; a few rugged yet cautious ones have discovered that stomping hard will break footholds in the icy crust; and of course, a few have lost their footing altogether and are being caught by a friend or teacher. This was not in today’s lesson plan, but as experienced place-based educators, the teachers have learned to adapt to what nature provides them and even the trip to and from the outdoor classroom can offer valuable learning opportunities.
Planting the Sapling
Hartland Elementary is one of about 20 schools in Vermont and New Hampshire where learning outdoors is truly integrated into the school week. A town of 3,400, Hartland lies in the Upper Valley of the Connecticut River and its elementary school serves the town’s 311 preK-8th grade students, 40% of whom are free lunch eligible.
Beginning in the 2015-2016 school year, two innovative kindergarten teachers and a supportive administrator launched Wednesdays in the Woods. At the time, the teachers were part of a Professional Learning Community (PLC) focused on Outdoor Play and Learning, and they visited other sites to glean ideas for their space and routines. They decided to organize their program as a combination of structured and unstructured time, balancing the needs of children to have boundaries with the benefits of freedom and choice that derive from self-guided learning and play. About a dozen families participated in an initial work day to build the site, which includes a large, rock-lined fire pit and a rustic lean-to. The program started small—bringing students to the outdoor site first for a half hour, then 45 minutes, and eventually building up to the full day immersion.
“Overall we’ve done a disservice to kids at all grade levels because there isn’t that time for play. People who don’t understand just think play is wasting time, but that is the way they learn – through their play. When we just have them sit at desks…we’re missing out on opportunities to engage kids.” With this recognition, the administrator at Hartland Elementary underscored the foundation of the many benefits afforded by outdoor, play-based learning.
And with a seemingly instinctive grasp of the research on self-directed learning, the kids, one after the next, highlight the benefit of these Wednesdays as “I get to choose.”
In a series of interviews, classroom teachers, parents, and the administrator shared their experiences with Wednesday in the Woods; its origins, workings, and most importantly, what it was doing for the kindergarteners.
The mix of creative, self-directed play with the structure of “bringing the curriculum outside” is yielding results. As one teacher described, “We might not sit down at our tables and do our worksheets but we have discussions that are priceless. We bring out the curriculum in fun ways that stick with the kids and then we can make links back in the classroom. We’re always saying, ‘Remember that experience we had?’”
As the learning found its way home, parents took notice. “Being outside has helped her creativity when she’s writing,” reported one parent. “She’s more able to imagine scenarios–it seems like she’s more excited about imaginary play and likes to write stories about it. They keep a journal for Wednesday in the Woods, and she has carried that on at home.”
Science, too, is a natural fit for the outdoor classroom. Different parents reported that “My daughter goes outside now with a much more critical eye. She really has gotten an eye for how to compare and contrast things and how to notice changes,” and “I don’t remember the names of all the different things in nature, so when we go play outside behind our house it’s an opportunity for [my daughter] to teach me about all different flowers, leaves, trees. She so enjoys teaching me about what she learned.”
Beyond the academic disciplines, interviewees recalled many stories in which students developed 21st century skills such as teamwork and problem solving in the authentic setting of the outdoors. The students worked together to move an enormous log, to build a shelter that kept collapsing, and create a primitive teeter-totter on which to play. And teamwork, of course, requires the development of communication skills – using words clearly, making one’s voice heard, listening respectfully to others’ ideas. As a parent noted, “So many skills are learned out there beyond what is required to be taught to children – beyond what’s in the curriculum.”
Social Emotional Benefits
Stories shared by all interviewees confirmed that the outdoor classroom is a supportive environment for learners with diverse needs and dispositions. “The forest is a time they can get away from the [behavioral] challenges they face in the classroom,” reported one teacher, and another observed that:
“Getting to see children in a different light for us is huge. We’ve got lots more space, no walls, and all those expectations that we have in school are different. We let them take more risks, we say, ‘Yes! Climb that tree, go for it!’ They get to be themselves, and we get to see the whole child. Every day we go out there [my co-teacher and I] say to each other, ‘I never would have seen that side of him if we were inside all the time.’”
These benefits were clear to one grateful parent:
“We have some behavioral problems with my daughter at school, but because she’s free to make her own choices when they’re in the woods and not pigeonholed into the classroom, we know it’s going to go well. …I think it’s that she knows that today she’s not going to get in trouble, she knows she’s not going to get sent out of the room where ‘bad’ kids go, she knows that she can thrive at school at least one day a week.”
The outdoor classroom can offer ways to thrive for all students. One parent volunteer noted that even her own daughter who “does not struggle with managing her body and her behavior” found other ways to grow on Wednesdays. “She’s shy and slow to join in so it toughened her up and made her more willing to roll with the punches. She’s more flexible now, I’d say.”
Affinity for an Active Lifestyle
Increased opportunity to play and learn outdoors, whatever the weather, seems to be having some lifestyle benefits as well for the Hartland students. Two parents shared stories of the impacts on their children:
“I was concerned about this program because my daughter had zero interest in nature when the school year was starting. But we’re Vermonters so all we have is the outdoors, so to have a kid who didn’t want to go outdoors was a bummer. But now she will look at us and she’ll say, ‘Let’s go on a nature walk!’ And I’m thinking, ‘What did you do with my child?’ This happened within the first four Wednesdays! That has been awesome for our family because we thought we just had an ‘indoor kid’.”
“On the weekends we’d say, ‘Let’s go for a hike’ and in the past she would be resistant and would make one of us carry her. This toughened her up, made her much more willing to be outdoors, and outdoors for longer periods of time. That was an effect I saw right away. Through the program she saw that being outdoors wasn’t just hiking. It introduced her to all these ways that she could be herself in the outdoors.”
These benefits have not gone unnoticed by the rest of the Hartland faculty. All grade levels, K-8, have visited the outdoor classroom, with first through third grades visiting almost weekly for shorter periods. Some of these early adopters have already created a second outdoor classroom space far enough from the first to preserve the magical isolation of the kindergarteners’ woodland home. The first grade team intends to expand their outdoor time to a full day in the coming school year.
The building administrator expressed great support for future expansion of the program:
“You could see all grades benefiting from it. You can try to drum stuff into their heads five days a week and they probably only get three days of it at best. So that day outdoors is probably going to make them listen better on the other four days indoors. And there are a lot of things you can do to make their learning real out there…the only thing that holds you back is your imagination.”
The program’s appeal has not been lost on the broader community. One parent mentioned that friends who have children attending other schools are “jealous of what we have,” and another noted that recently she had “heard of families who factored this program into their decision to move to Hartland.”
Bending Towards the Sun
Back in their classroom toward the end of the day, children are writing and drawing in their science journals. Not surprisingly, one boy is busy writing about the animal tracks he followed, another child is drawing the biggest, bluest sky one can imagine, and several students are proudly documenting the very first moments of their day, hours earlier—the “big, big hill” they made it down safely, together.
Hartland’s Wednesday in the Woods Routine
- Children assemble in the classroom, pack up small matching backpacks with lunch and water bottles, and dress in layers for the weather.
- Enter the woods across the playing fields, and pause for “Tree Stop” at the woods’ edge. At this giant, fallen tree at the top of the hill leading down to their outdoor classroom, kids sit, take in the view, sing a woods song, and discuss the day’s plan.
- Steep descent to the site, holding onto a rope tied tree to tree, or tumbling on ahead.
- Gather briefly around the fire pit.
- Children and adults head to their sit spot for quiet observations, then small groups gather with an adult to share what they noticed, changes they observed.
- Gather around the fire for a snack.
- Choice time (belly sliding, wandering, building forts, tracking animals, gazing at the sky, making nature collections).
- Offerings: kids have 3-4 choices offered by attending adults. Sometimes they are assigned to a group, usually they choose their preferred place.
- Lunch around the fire circle.
- Back in the classroom: writing and drawing in journals, blogging about time outdoors (See the class blog).
About the Author
Amy Powers is co-founder and principal with Program Evaluation and Educational Research (PEER) Associates, which provides utilization-focused program evaluation and research, strategy and planning, and program design services for organizations nationwide. PEER specializes in place-based, environmental, sustainability, STEM, and conservation education projects and values the missions of its clients. We welcome correspondence from readers who are interested in delving deeper into the hows, whats, and whys of their place-based education programs.