Thursday, December 6, 2012

Outdoors: Full Capacity Learning

When I discovered Tumbleweed blog, I was secretly hoping that someday, maybe, I could be one of its teachers. It was a daydreaming kind of hope. Then, the opportunity came knocking this past June when Amy informed me there would be a teaching position open. I was thrilled AND anxious if my dream could actually come true. In the process of pursuing the position, friends and family were curious why I had my heart so set on Tumbleweed without even visiting it in person. I know... It is one of those things when I just know this IS it. Of course, such response didn’t sound believable to some people. I felt like I should give them something, so they were not worried that I was being irrational. Yet, describing an environment where children can reach out for life and touch it, wallow in it, tinker with it, interpret it, and express it requires more than a conceivable reason.

This was a conversation between me and a friend (who is a father of a two year old) when he asked me about Tumbleweed:

Friend: “Why do you like Tumbleweed so much? Whatʼs something you like about Tumbleweed?”
Me: “Kids play most of the day outside.”
Friend: “Ah. That sounds cool. Are they learning anything?” 
Me: “What do you mean?”
Friend: “If they play all day outside, when do they learn?”
Me: “Do you mean what do they learn when they play outside?” 
Friend: “Yes. Are they learning anything, playing all day outside?”

 Listening to the question, I hear several concerning assumptions: 1) free play is not learning, 2) learning only occurs inside, aka indoor classroom, 3) outside, or outdoor, is not a classroom setting; therefore, children canʼt learn anything from playing outside.

A five year old once said to me, “Hsiao-Ling, you are always doing something even when you are just laying there watching the clouds float by.... you are doing something. And if you are doing something, you are learning something.”

You donʼt have to take my words for what, when, where and how children learn, but this five year old child has taught me when children learn things, the process of learning is far more important than any trivia, number concepts, or letter recognition you may try to cram into their heads while sitting down in a classroom. 

Traditional preschool approaches employ classroom based, adult-led activities with very specific outcomes as the framework for learning, and outdoor free play as a break from those activities. At Tumbleweed, open-ended and child-led exploration occupies most of the childrenʼs time. The teachers' roles are to support and scaffold each child's learning instead of dictate or control it. As such, what looks like children are just "blowing off steam", running, jumping, climbing, and shouting out here, they are actually doing everything else as well, learning at full capacity. 


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