Outdoor Classroom Day cropped up in my Facebook feed last year and I excitedly asked our school principal to sign our school up to participate. The premise sounded awesome, spend a whole school day outside, then document and share your experience to promote the importance of outdoor play and outdoor encounters for children. Yay!
Learning from Last Time...
In 2017 I was enthused but woefully underprepared (no, falsely prepared). First, we took our chairs outside and the kids spent time sketching pictures of the forest and school buildings. This was reasonably successful and fun. Then we went out onto the playing fields and tried to do a WORDBUILDING activity using LITTLE BITS OF PAPER. To this day, I think to myself ‘whyyyyyyyyy? Why, Miss Muller, did you even vaguely consider that to be a sensible idea?’ Within minutes little bits of paper had blown everywhere and nobody, including myself, really understood why we were outside in the first place. Good going, Miss Muller. In hindsight the only viable interpretation of this mysterious choice was that at this point last year I was so unutterably freaked out by my student’s weak literacy skills that I couldn’t conceive of a day without a word-building activity or similar. But the truth is it was nonsense, and how thankful I am that you only have to be a first-year teacher once!
Outdoor Classroom Day 2018... what went down!
This year when Outdoor Classroom Day promotions started up, I was ready. We’d already had a spontaneous mud play session on the last day of Term 3, which was an eye-opening moment for me (and the kids!) I knew that this year I wanted to approach a day of being outside in a very different way. First of all, I wrote a letter to parents asking them to allow their kids to bring spare clothes in their bags on Outdoor Classroom Day. I also warned them that their kids might get messy and muddy (an expectation which they lived up to effortlessly)
The day did not run smoothly, it was boisterous and excessively noisy, I worried a lot about disturbing other classes and preventing total mayhem in the form of mud fights. I encountered discipline issues throughout the day, and I spent the last hour of the school day washing muddy feet and hands in a big bucket and mopping the bathroom floor which was a brown sludgy mess.
But despite all of this, IT WAS EXCELLENT FUN and I am excited to share some photographs and highlights from the day. Some parts went by so fast and needed such a high degree of teacher involvement that I didn’t manage to take photographs, but I still managed to capture some special moments. For the most part, I planned the day according to a few key topics that we’re looking at this term, which are all wonderfully cross-curricular – mapwork, spatial orientation and prepositions. We also started looking at comparing mass (heavy and light).
We started the day exploring the school with a picture map of the school grounds, teaching the kids how to orientate themselves according to a spatial diagram. ‘Let’s see if you can find the hall… the Grade 6 classroom… the basket ball court, etc’. This was in preparation for doing a ‘treasure hunt’ after break. Next we took our chairs outside and played a version of ‘Simon Says’ with a big emphasis on using prepositions (stand in front of your chair, hide behind your chair, walk around your chair, etc). I am excited to see how this embodied learning impacts their written work next week, as we continue exploring prepositions in their written stories.
After Simon Says, I invited the kids on a nature hunt, to find 4 objects which they could sketch and compare. Within minutes they had found some intriguing objects including long reed grass that they waved in the sky and giant leaves that one student wore as a sun shading hat! They document which objects were heavier and which were lighter, but they also just had fun hunting for objects and trying to classify them – is it a leaf, a fruit, a rock a wood?
Our next activity was a treasure hunt. While the children read indoors for a few minutes, I quickly hid the treasure I had bought for the kids (a balloon each and a small sweetie). They worked in groups and each group received a different set of written instructions, that they could read independently. As soon as they had read their instructions, each group raced out of class to find their treasure. By the time I had helped the last group orientate themselves, almost everyone was back in class blowing up balloons and chewing toffees. It was over in a flash, so I only got a photograph of the instructions and map I prepared for them.
After the treasure hunt we made out way to our (poorly neglected) vegetable garden in which one aubergine plant is bravely fruiting its first bounty. We happily observed and watered it and then proceeded to weed the rest of the garden, with the express motive of clearing space with which to play with mud. I poured water onto each clearing and the children busied themselves with the task of getting as muddy as possible. It was both delightful and stressful, as shrieks of delight were interspersed with shrieks of dismay as a few children played inconsiderately, splashing others and even smearing mud on other children’s clothes. Why? Aaaaaaah! In the end, a good dose of bucket washing and a very muddy bathroom floor gave way to relatively clean children, who went home smiling.
Find out more...
If you are a teacher and you haven’t heard of Outdoor Classroom Day, here is their website! If you have heard about it and are on the fence, I encourage you to give it a go, even by doing some practice rounds and trying short activities outside throughout the year before building up to a whole day. And for more inspiration about the potential of outdoor learning, read about the amazing development of ‘Forest Schools’ in the UK and surrounds, where children’s entire learning experience takes place outdoors in rain or shine. In a world where so many children grow up an in urban jungle, inundated with a capitalist, consumerist agenda that promote screens, plastic and junk outdoor play is a quiet but radical reclamation of our human right to wonder, explore and commune with our natural environment.
Read more Snapshots of our day to day classroom antics, or explore my recent posts on education and teaching in South Africa.
Earlier in October I attended a conference about self-directed learning and unschooling, hosted by an unschooling community organisation called ‘Growing Minds’. I didn’t know that such a community existed in South Africa until about 6 months ago, when I first saw the conference announcement on Facebook. I had read somewhere that Elon Musk was unschooling his children and hadn’t given the idea much further thought except to label it ‘probably elitist’. And so I was surprised and intrigued to find it working as a grassroots, community-oriented movement here in South Africa.
I was also hooked by the theme of the conference, which was ‘unschooling as decolonisation’. I decided to attend, with a mind to listen, mostly, and maybe ask some questions. I was ready to feel inspired, but also possibly alienated.
Making this decision was one of the main factors that spurred me into re-working Encounteract and start writing more about my teaching and learning experiences. I knew I’d probably meet a lot of people who disagree fundamentally with the idea of school and its premise of providing education. I knew that some would have views of varying intensity and myopia and that talk about reform in mainstream schools might not be up for discussion. I wasn’t sure where the decolonial conversation would really go – or what kind of room it would really be given. I wasn’t sure where or how I would fit in, or even exactly what my stance was. I have often told people that I am a school teacher who ‘doesn’t trust schools’ but I am also hesitant to condemn schooling completely, because really it is a term that encompasses many possible interpretations both good and evil. Writing was my go-to option for starting to process these ideas and feelings, to start articulating my identity as a teacher (a learning teacher) and defining what felt important.
I always planned to write some reflections on the conference, but I am still not sure how they are going to emerge. Without a doubt, I am glad that I went, but I am also aware that the experience left me troubled about things that I didn’t know I needed to feel troubled about. I went in with a lot of questions, and I just left with more.
And so I haven’t exactly been churning out essays. Instead, I got back to my classroom, spent two exhausted days yelling at kids and tearing my hair out and feeling like a bad teacher. Good Going, Miss Muller.
What I have realised is that I want to at least test the waters of emergent curriculum and child-led learning, especially while I still have a classroom for 6 weeks. Soon the year will be over and I will be saying goodbye to my students for good. Already they have accomplished more than I really expected them to (because hey! this is all still pretty new to me and I didn’t know what to expect or what was possible when the year started). Now I’m wondering, what would happen if I cracked open the core structure of our school day and started introducing more freedom and choices to the students? Already they have unanimously decided that the school day should start with everyone grabbing a book from the book box and reading on the carpet. Goodbye registration period, we don’t miss it! What else will they show me?
To make things more interesting/ complicated, the in-coming Grade 1 teacher is shadowing me for the rest of the term, and I am responsible for guiding her as much as possible to take over my class. Yikes, truly! I don’t feel like an expert, or even proficient. In fact, I feel a bit like an eccentric inventor who is guessing half the time. But I am still excited to retrace my steps with her, to remember some of the highlights of the year,but also the mistakes, all the things I had to do over again or that really, shoulda-could’ve worked, but didn’t - or that shouldn’t have worked, but did!
With all these muddles of puddles to reflect on (in?) Encounteract is set up either to be neglected or besieged by my attentions. Read more about my teaching (and coping!) strategies or check out my most recent posts.
This activity rocks for so many reasons. I especially love it because it shows the versatility of paper and its potential for making 3-dimensional creations. I love how practically and expressively it allows children to explore line and form, the flat but pliable paper strips bent and twisted into extra-ordinary shapes and arranged in energetic compositions. It is accessible, inexpensive and most of all really, really fun.
This is an idea that I originally saw on Pinterest and there are many iterations all over the web, so it is very hard to tell where it originated. Practically it is very easy to execute. I cut some fresh paper strips, but also collected off-cuts over the months, whenever I trimmed card for other projects.
This was my second year trying it and while it was successful and fun last year too, my impression was that this year my students took to it more daringly, with far less reliance on my guidance. I can't pin down exactly why this might be. Perhaps I explained and demonstrated the activity more clearly? Comparing pedagogical approaches from year to year can be difficult because there are so many factors at play - just having a different bunch of kids can have a huge impact on how an activity is taken up.
It was also interesting to notice a few high achieving students who were really anxious to be given such open-ended instruction and for whom the freedom to play and create equated to a scary uncertainty. And at the same time, some students who struggle tremendously with traditional school work, especially fine-motor control, took to it with joyful gusto.
To me this kind of activity forms an essential part of a balanced early years program and it is especially important because it reaches kids who don't thrive at more structured, traditional school activities.
Read more snapshots here, or explore my Instagram @katiencounteract.
A daunted but determined teacher irons out the creases of her brain.