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Lens on Outdoor Learning

Ginny Sullivan

When most of us think about providing play space for our kids in the yard, we usually think about a swing set or a play structure of some sort. Schools tend to take the same sort of approach, but there is another way of looking at ‘play space’ and the potential it holds for learning at school, and at home.

Ginny Sullivan began her teaching career at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As a first grade teacher she started to see the ways that young children interacted with the natural elements around the school. Her thinking about how children learned moved in a new direction leading her to the University of Massachusetts where she earned her Masters Degree in Education in 1972.

As she continued to teach, her interest in the way children’s play in the natural world affected their learning, also continued to grow. Educators often talk about classrooms designed  to facilitate learning; Sullivan wanted to know more about designing outdoor spaces to facilitate learning for young children. She attended the Conway School of Landscape Design, and North Carolina State University.

The result of her own years of study, as well as her work with children and teachers of young children is Lens on Outdoor Learning, written with Wendy Banning, a teacher, teacher trainer and Director of the Irvin Learning Farm in North Carolina who she met during her time there.  “The reason for our book is the emphasis on academic standards that often leave no time for outside activities. But when you look at the ways you learn how to learn, that can happen outside. Our book goes right through the standards and shows how those standards are met by children’s outdoor ‘play,’” Sullivan said.

The importance of the time children spend playing outside has received more and more attention since Richard Louv wrote his stunning book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.  This book has been so influential that pediatricians have become concerned about the time children spend indoors, often in front of an electronic screen.  Some have even been know to write prescriptions for outdoor playtime.

Children who live in a rural area like ours hardly need more than prompting to go outside where we have green backyards with trees and plants if not fields and woods. Very young children will often be accompanied by a patient adult who is willing to share the thoughtful pace that preschoolers bring to their investigations of trees, bugs, slugs and weeds. If there is some kind of water to get wet in, and to watch as it moves, so much the better.

Lens on Outdoor Learning

In Lens on Outdoor Learning Sullivan goes through the educational standards that have been set by states all across the country, and then observed children playing in the natural landscape, and in the built landscape of a preschool play yard to see how those environments lead to learning.  It has been said that nature is the first teacher and we have probably all watched a tiny child be fascinated and engrossed by the movement of an ant across a picnic tablecloth, or dandelion seeds floating through the air.

Sullivan and Banning share photo credits of children expressing their curiosity, their persistence, imagination and creativity. Their activities can seem very simple, and everyday, which they are. Children are naturally curious, imaginative and creative, and they can show great persistence. It can take a skilled teacher to be able to articulate the ways these attributes lead to important learning. Given a chance children are quick to use the scientific method, observation, experimenting, making a hypothesis, experimenting some more – and feeling great pleasure when they feel they have understood how things work.

Sullivan and Ruth Parnell, her partner in their Learning by the Yard design firm, have worked with a number of schools and organizations including the Conway Grammar School PTO about designing the school landscape. “We talked to the kids to see what they wanted. Children up to second grade drew pictures, and older children wrote. One little girl asked me if we could fix it so they could go outside,” Sullivan said. They wanted a place to sit in the shade, and the teachers wanted a place to eat outside. “School grounds can nurture teachers too.” I think all of us can benefit from being outdoors in the sun – and the green.

When I asked Sullivan what advice she would give parents she did not hesitate to say, “Spend time outside with your children. Sit in the shade with them. Think about the places that make you feel good. It just takes a small invitation to get a child interested in the natural world.”

She also said parents don’t need to know all the answers to children’s questions. “Ask them what they think. Ask how they can find out the answers together,” she said.

If nature is the first teacher,  parents share that honor and pleasure, watching their child’s observations and responses to what they see. Lens on Outdoor Learning may give parents a new perspective on what the children are doing when they stop on a walk through the yard to investigate a spider web or seed head. ###

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