Reflections of Castleton Summer 2020

This week and next, I’m attending the Castleton Summer school, taking a course with Michelle and Suzanne from Wren’s Nest, who are supporting 14 of us through a deep dive into the significance of Nature and Forest-based pre-school. My motivation to take the course is led by a desire to continue and deepen my understanding of the way we can utilize our outdoor spaces more fully as practitioners. I am interested in how we can explore the possibility of moving more of our traditional care and learning activities outside. During the period of Covid19, this feels even more pertinent for the youngest of our babies, infants, and toddlers.

When I first arrived in Vermont to live last year, I was surprised that there weren’t unlimited options for what I would consider a true nature-based school, one where children spend at least 50% of their time outside. I’ve always admired the Scandinavians, who make little distinction between seasons: babies routinely sleep outside, only moving inside during the coldest of temperatures, and I was expecting a similar approach to Early Childhood Education (ECE)  in Vermont-after all, the message Vermont Strong is everywhere. 

I was born in the U.K., and studied ECE under Helen Tovey, Helen May, and Tina Bruce, all strong proponents of nature-based learning, and the importance of optimizing the outdoors as a classroom. It is not unusual in Europe for pre-schools to have a ‘free-range’ approach to children, with the freedom to roam indoors and outdoors, depending on what children are ‘working on’ at that point in time. These spaces are not free for all unstructured, settings: rather, the environments are tailored to ensure children can use all their senses to develop their interests and become the people they need to be. The pre-school my son attended even had child-sized doors and hatches that connected the outside to the inside, which suited him perfectly, as he was an earth and sandboy scratcher, and needed to be outside the majority of the time. He is now a sophomore at Middlebury College, so we did something right! 

I sense that an over-arching concern over children’s safety in the USA has interfered with the fundamentals of how children learn best, yet trying to protect children from failure and potential harm can be counterproductive. Being too safe by providing a sanitized and overly cautious environment can limit children’s abilities to make smart choices, think through challenges, face problems, and overcome them. We are liable to limit our children’s sense of empowerment and their innate ability to make good choices. What choice is there, if the slide is 30 inches off the ground, and surrounded by a mound which takes all the risk away? Where does the sense of achievement come from?

It is important to recognize that children need some opportunities to struggle to assist their learning. The importance of trying different strategies to overcome hurdles is a valuable life lesson, and perseverance is a quality that serves us all, particularly during stressful times. I maintain that the ability to continue when things don’t go to plan is rooted in a strong sense of autonomy, competence and, self-belief. 

As practitioners, I believe we should be championing the deep significance of the outdoors, within nature, providing children multiple chances to take calculated risks. Self-mastery is the goal, and providing an environment where children are able to test themselves, work out problems, be challenged is a positive thing to be embraced, not removed.  A child will be more likely to try something more challenging if praise focuses on the process, strategy, effort, and choices made, all of which are directly linked with intrinsic motivation.

The pre-school regulations may feel limiting for how we can utilize outside space, yet Wren’s Nest has shown us that it is possible to work within the rules, interpreting them and yet be able to offer our smallest Vermonters an environment to truly learn within nature. The Nature and Forest-Based course at Castleton has re-kindled my passion for ensuring children are provided multiple opportunities for being outside, living, and learning, and playing within a nature-based environment.

We all feel better in the fresh air, with the ability to run, or take a short hike, provide us the chance to swing, or jump, dance and read, find a quiet hammock for an afternoon nap, jump off the hay trailer, find a rock to sit upon, study the birds, watch the tomatoes grow, do some weeding, plant some seeds, dip our toes in the water, slide in the snow, sit around a fire, have a conversation about the geese flying overhead, watch the clouds, smell the breeze. With guidance and support from us, our children will flourish.

During normal times, outside activities are of deep significance: during Covid, the opportunity to spend lots of time outside is even more vital. The majority of us feel safer and better about ourselves in the open air. Our blood pressure goes down, our shoulders drop, our minds open, our stress levels are reduced. As practitioners, I envisage us using our outside space in even more creative ways this fall: we can re-look at our gardens, playgrounds, and yards with fresh eyes, and see how we can re-purpose the space as outdoor classrooms. Consider moving traditional indoor activities onto the lawn, create a shaded corner for a quiet book space, move the easels and tables offering opportunities to paint, and cook, and count, and sing and dance. Create a ‘stage’ with some pallets and provide opportunities for fantasy play and gross motor development. Maybe even experiment with naptime outside on a covered porch, as the Scandinavians do. I wish you some light relief, dreaming-and scheming-and-planning for a new way of being during the Fall and winter seasons. I’ll share what I learn!

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