As the idea of outdoor early childhood programs gains ground, Fiddleheads Forest School has been the recipient of increased media attention from across the country. We are so glad that, from our small school in the University of Washington Botanic Garden, we are able to contribute to a wider conversation about learning in nature, and the nature of learning. However, the media’s perspective is inevitably limited; a reporter visits for a day or two at most, which may allow them to describe the general gestalt of our program and the excitement around this trend, but misses the meaning and impact of this kind of experience over time.
This fall, in response to growing interest, Fiddleheads expanded from one classroom site to two, welcoming 50 families to a year of preschool out-of-doors. Children suited up, waved goodbye to their caregivers, and ventured into their “Forest Grove” classrooms — wild, unknown spaces that would, over time, become deeply familiar. Now, approaching the midpoint of the school year, we have a chance to pause and reflect on some of the growth and learning of the last several months.
“What lives in that hole? It’s very dark in there.” “Look! More winter buds!” “We found this fungus. It’s… sticky.” Each day at Fiddleheads is full of observations and exclamations, as the children explore the wonders of the Arboretum and share their discoveries with peers and teachers.
As human beings, one of our primary modes of learning about the world is through our senses. This is true at any age, but is especially potent during early childhood, a period of enormous curiosity, physical energy, and cognitive development. Another way that young children learn is through conversation — listening, thinking out loud, reciprocal exchange. Thus, one of our emphases at Fiddleheads is the perceptual affordances of the outdoor environment, and the dialogue among students and teachers that draws out and makes meaning of sensory experience.
One of the most compelling aspects of teaching at a year-round outdoor school is seeing the way the children’s perceptions develop over time. At the beginning of the year, for many incoming students, trees were trees, a bird was a bird, and spotting an owl — superbly camouflaged — was nigh impossible.
Five months immersed in the woods has changed that. Students at Fiddleheads know the bumpy, moss-covered limbs of Big Leaf Maple; the fibrous, red bark of Western Red Cedar; Douglas Firs oozing sap from craggy trunks. They are familiar with the squeaky voice of a nuthatch and the cascading calls of eagles. And when a resident barred owl came to perch in our classroom recently, way up in the crowded evergreen canopy, the children were the ones instructing their parents on the best angle from which to spot the quiet, feathery visitor.
In addition to noticing more nuance in any given moment, the children also show a growing awareness of their environment changing over time. They experienced the day-to-day changes in leaf color this fall, watched the way different leaves dance toward the ground, and rambled through the decomposing foliage for months to come. Now, they are noticing winter buds of all colors and sizes, and beginning to wonder aloud about their unfolding.
The students encounter myriad changes, large and small, in the environment every day. This kind of encounter with dynamic processes carries with it opportunity to develop flexible thinking. Part of a web of ecological events and relationships, these changes have a kind of coherence often lacking in highly engineered contexts. As the students explore and investigate their environment over time, they are developing an understanding that everything — a worm, a mottled leaf, a trickling stream — has a story to tell.
Since first donning their boots and rain suits this fall, every student in our class has also developed a remarkable amount of sheer grit. I am continually amazed by what a small human being, given some mental tools (and the appropriate clothing), is capable of, in any kind of weather!
We focused early in the year on checking in with our bodies throughout the day. As teachers, we model the awareness and self-care necessary for coping with (and enjoying!) all sorts of weather. “I feel raindrops,” I might say as a drizzle begins, “I am going to put on my hat.” Or, “I see you are shivering. Your body is cold. Let’s play a game to warm up.”
By December — our wettest December on record — the children are doing this observing and adjusting with increasing independence. This physical awareness, and ability to make choices appropriate to internal state, is a critical element of self-regulation, and a focus of the Fiddleheads curriculum.
Sometimes, despite best efforts, being outside for four hours can get a little uncomfortable. On a cold, clear day in January, we took a long walk through the Arboretum to the open, sunny Pacific Connections garden. One student was particularly struggling with his hands feeling cold. I saw him walking in small circles on the path, his shadow long in the winter sun, shaking his hands, wincing a little, and talking to himself. Recognizing this as a coping strategy, I chose to continue observing rather than immediately intervene.
A few minutes later, he was running up the steep hill with his peers, reluctantly at first, and then with enthusiasm. On our walk back he was cheerful and engaged. It was a small moment, which he may not even remember. But many small moments like that — experiencing adversity, and getting through it — add up to something. Confidence. Resilience. Grit.
The other big changes we’ve seen in students over the last five months are in their social and emotional awareness, and self-regulation skills. This suite of skills are complex, and understood as foundational to future learning and development. More on this in our next blog post — check back soon!