Some of the youngest students at The Roeper School are learning 21st-century skills of creative problem solving, collaboration and resiliency in an unlikely setting. Preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students at Roeper, an independent school for gifted children, are expanding their learning in outdoor classrooms right on the Lower School’s Bloomfield Hills campus.
This immersive outdoor learning experience is based on the European “forest school” concept that provides numerous benefits especially for young learners, says Amber Webb, a Roeper preschool teacher who used the pandemic shutdown in March as an opportunity to research outdoor education. Studies indicate that outdoor, self-guided exploration contributes to increased self-esteem, self-regulation, physical and mental health and a host of other benefits for children.
“I knew we’d have parents who were skeptical about outdoor school,” but they began to see the benefits of an early approach to risk assessment, she says. “We know that teens and adults figure things out the hard way. If you know how to take appropriate risks and know the difference between risk and danger and have a safe place to practice, that sets kids up for a better future.”
In addition to regular outdoor recess, all preschoolers and most kindergarteners and first graders at Roeper learn in their outdoor classrooms by climbing trees, exploring nature and stomping through the shallow Rouge River that winds through the wooded Lower School campus.
Learning by doing
At first, some kids asked what they were supposed to do, says kindergarten/first-grade teacher Andi Akkashian, whose class spends an hour each afternoon in the outdoor classroom. “We gave them boundaries and said go and explore. We have no agenda except collaboration and taking risks in a safe way. We watch and question and notice their curiosities and provide materials to help in their explorations,” Akkashian says, adding that students quickly devise collaborative projects that incorporate everything from pulleys and levers and incline planes to artwork using ash from the firepit. “They’re figuring out how to move objects around the hills and dips in the classroom and collaborating using tools in a safe way. They are loving it.”
Preschoolers spend the better part of three hours in the morning among the woods and creek of their outdoor classroom.They have morning meetings, storytime and snack, create art and explore — with the basic rule of keeping teachers within their sightline at all times. “The students encourage one another and are courageous. They get stuck in the mud and use sticks to help each other get out,” Webb says. “We talk about the differences in the forest when it’s wet and dry and how that impacts our risk-taking.”
Gratitude for the land
Both age groups wondered who owned the land before the school was built and first graders scoured a historical map of the campus to learn about a former ice-skating pond and fountain. “We investigated and learned about the Potawatomi tribes here and now the children say ‘thank you for the land’ when we leave each day,” says Akkashian. Home learners who take part in Roeper’s Home Learning Program often join their first-grade friends in the outdoor classrooms.
Parents quickly recognized their children would encounter the elements and sent extra clothing to school, even reusable hand warmers to keep little fingers warm. “We always say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing, and the kids are learning that winter is no longer a scary time. It’s OK to play in the rain. There is value there,” Webb says.
Amidst the mud, rain and fresh air is the lasting sense of peace and joy that comes with spending time outside, the teachers say. “The most joy in our day is being in the woods with the kids,” Webb says. “Parents may have been concerned, but when we showed them the value, they were sold.”