Reduced class size. Longer school days. Accountability through testing. Better teachers. Managing the drop-out rate. Dealing with unions. Remedial programs. Special education and ELL students. Safety in school. The list goes on…….we know public education is in dire straits and that there are many brilliant minds and kind hearts trying to find solutions to a complex set of problems. But let’s look for a moment at the end user who should be the focus of all this attention – The Child.
What motivates a kid to learn? Perhaps it’s sitting all day listening to an adult telling you to go to page 57 and read a paragraph or work out a math problem. Perhaps not. Maybe it’s memorizing facts and figures (It’ll be on the test!) about a distant time before your grandparents were born. Maybe not.
It seems to me that kids are ACTIVE and SOCIAL beings that have an INNATE CURIOSITY about the world around them. We should be using these attributes as a springboard into the wonderful (yes, wonder full) world of learning. A green schoolyard dispenses with the chairs, desks, walls, ceiling, chalkboards and just about everything else found in the indoor classroom. It is an open active space that is asymmetrical and sensory-rich with things to touch, smell, hear, observe, and, yes, taste. It is a patch of land surrounded by a real world neighborhood. It seethes with possibilities and beckons children to embark together on a journey of discovery. The teacher can even come along.
So, we’re sitting on a boulder in a corner of the schoolyard. This boulder is part of a crude circle of rocks that reflect local geology. In fact, the school building itself was partially constructed from this same type of stone. The heavy rocks were quarried by immigrants that came from another country to start new lives here (just like many families today). Can we see any other buildings in the neighborhood built with the same kind of stones? How come the new school annex has been built with other materials? Wait a minute, what is a rock, anyway? We take out our hand lenses and begin to take a REALLY close look at our collection of rocks. What are these little sparkly pieces? Why is this one bumpy and this one is smooth? Look at all the bugs under this one? We are engaged in learning. It is not particularly linear, or organized in the traditional way, but it is interesting and has raised many questions. Now, the teacher can take a bunch of curious and excited students back inside to use their texts or the internet to assist in finding answers.
We have entered the school garden. We pick some mint leaves and put them in water jugs in the sun. Later we’ll drink solar-heated mint tea. We wonder why the dwarf pine tree has kept its needles while the apple tree is losing its leaves. We pick up the leaves and add them to our compost pile. A monarch butterfly hovers around our milkweed plant and a big crow perches on the fence post. Our wind-driven pump helps to send water through the irrigation channels we’ve dug. The wind dies down and the flow of water stops. Our scarecrow, that everyone agrees looks a little like the Assistant Principal, sighs as the crow alights on his head. We laugh and just feel really good….this is fun!
I’m sitting at the top of the slide looking at the colorful mural painted on our school. It’s just like a picture in a storybook but 1000 times bigger. I helped paint the ships sailing off to sea and a little bit of the dancer with a torch. I could gaze and dream forever but Willie is pushing me down the slide now. We spend alot of time running around like crazy because we can’t move around in class.
Alright, enough with the vignettes, but I hope you catch my drift. An active and multi-functional schoolyard doesn’t have to REPLACE the indoor classroom but can ADD to the overall mission of our schools – educating the whole child. After all, it’s not as if we have to buy the land – we just need to use what we have creatively. Educators and schoolyard activists can tell you that student engagement in the outdoor classroom is the LEAST of their worries. Kids love to be outside doing stuff. Why not take advantage of this friendly learning environment to further our educational goals and objectives.
Smaller class size and longer school days? Sounds like a good idea to me. But let’s make sure that our kids want to be there. Let’s mix it up and offer different approaches to instruction that embrace our childrens many different learning styles. Some people hate their jobs. Others can’t wait to get to work. Public education should aim for the latter.