Emanu-El early childhood learning goes outdoors
Photo: Courtesy Temple Emanu-El
Taylor Yoss leading the Keshet class in yoga

Outdoor classroom model advances early educational learning

By Leah Vann

Playing outdoors isn’t just recess time for kids at Temple Emanu-El; it’s actually their classroom now too.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic sent kids to learn at home in March, schools have tried varying degrees of hybrid, online and in-person classroom experiences. Most, including Temple Emanu-El’s Early Childhood Education Center, were online for the remainder of the spring. Over the summer, Shelly Sender, senior director of Early Childhood Education, saw an opportunity to create the outdoor learning environment she’s always dreamed of.

“I’ve always embraced the natural world,” Sender said. “We’ve always done a lot outside; we just haven’t done almost everything outside.” 

The school, which educates kids from infancy to age 6, went online initially in March. While the teachers put forth their best efforts, it didn’t feel like the right way to continue, Sender said.

“I personally feel like the children need to be in a social environment where they are learning to share and how to face conflict,” said Mercedes Macedo, who teaches 3-year-olds. “This social development happens when we are all together in one space.”

Plus, the ability to explore is limited when the kids are peering through a screen. Temple Emanu-El takes a Reggio-inspired   approach to its curriculum, where children’s curiosity shapes the curriculum and the classroom plays a role in that, Sender said. 

Having school outside was an option Natalie Exum, who has three kids in the program, brought to Sender’s attention back in March. As an environmental health scientist for Johns Hopkins University specializing in infectious diseases, she said that COVID-19 does not survive as well as other viruses in outdoor spaces, so she wasn’t nervous at all about sending her children back to school outdoors. In fact, it could be better. 

“I feel like there’s a freedom to interact and just kind of engage with the outdoor things that are not toys,” Exum said. “There is an eye toward the integration of materials in their own creative minds and imaginations.” 

The Temple grounds had ample room for 20 designated outdoor classroom spaces for its 250 students, and Sender decided there was no bad weather for a day at the outdoor classroom. Kids dress prepared for any weather, and tarps are used for shelter when rain threatens the day. The classes rotate spaces every four weeks.

The school includes a teaching kitchen garden, tables for kids to write, access to an amphitheater and fields with picnic benches, milk crates, tree limbs and logs for children to make pathways, bunks and hiding areas. 

While the kids are outdoors, where the risk of spreading the virus is low, they still wear their masks. Teachers help facilitate the use of bathroom facilities indoors so that they are properly distanced. 

Liz Chalfant, who has two kids in the program, said that she felt uneasy at first sending her kids back to in-person schooling. She hadn’t taken them to see any family members or even taken them with her to the supermarket in six months. Their only social interaction was occasionally  with neighbors outside. But with the school requiring masks in addition to being outdoors, she felt more at ease. 

“Graham, my 2-year-old, wears his mask all the way up over his nose, all day long, which I was skeptical that you would ever be able to do,” Chalfant said. “But Shelly always said, ‘You’ll be surprised by the teachers here and what we’ll be able to get your kids to do,’ and he wears his mask all day.” 

Chalfant recalls the early days of the pandemic, when she had to balance her extensive Zoom meetings for work with caring for Graham and his sister, Sloan, 5. The children not only engaged with school on Zoom but also extracurricular activities like Sloan’s Zoom ballet practices. The outdoor school had to work safely for her and her husband, Alex, because they both work full time. 

“Graham’s speech has improved tenfold,” Chalfant said. “He’s more playful now and he was always a really fun kid, but you can see he engages with people differently.” 

Exum says that her kids have a newfound appreciation for the natural world after searching for earthworms, building materials out of logs and growing a variety of vegetables that they use to make healthy meals. In addition, her sons will bring home craft projects, such as acorns to make necklaces for their friends. It’s the little things that can lead to an enhanced education in the long run.

“Children love to read when they have experiences in their lives that make them understand it,” Exum said. “Those are often experiences you can get being outside.”

Sender recognizes that this model wouldn’t work everywhere, since many states have harsh winters that wouldn’t allow for safe outdoor spaces year-round. But Sender hopes Temple Emanu-El is able to continue this year’s model indefinitely. 

“The kids are thinking out of the box and analytically,” Sender said. “Children are kinetic learners and I look at this and I think: ‘What a silver lining.’” 

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