Cover Story: Joys of a Winter Wonderland
Sara Reichstadt and Lisa Swan
Sara Reichstadt and Lisa Swan
*Photos and more resources can be found in the pdf version of this article.
Warm greetings from Minnesota! As leaders in our industry, our outdoor classrooms not only inspire child-led nature explorations, but are rich in unique and beautiful loose parts for play in all seasons. This innovative approach to learning keeps us on the cusp of the latest research, best practices and awe-inspiring environments for children and teachers. Although at times the wind may feel like it is blowing directly from the North Pole, we enjoy absolutely everything this beautiful season has to offer.
The Magic of Winter
There are no health risks to being outside in the rain or snow, but there are oh so many benefits! Perhaps the most obvious benefit of winter play is the beautiful, ever-changing landscape. When children leave play at the end of the day, the space will inevitably look different upon their return, which offers unlimited educational opportunities. A dusting of snow, a new icy layer, or fresh animal tacks can shift interest quickly. Dinosaurs may need rescue from beneath a thick layer of snow, or fresh tracks might begin a hunt to guess where the rabbit slept last night. There is so much to learn about science, nature, and our own physical abilities—not to mention our cognitive flexibility and decision making—just due to the fact that this snowy landscape changes continuously.
Winter also inspires great creativity, as the snow itself becomes a tool to create. It has a profound effect on how children build and play. Children might dig a hole in the snow for their bed or or make a pile with it to create a chair. Sometimes heavy snow can make it easier to anchor sticks, logs, or milk crates for building. Creating paths, roads, and even obstacle courses has been a continual pleasure in our outdoor winter spaces. Garden boxes turn into ice castles and mud kitchens into snowy cafes with talented chefs. And let us not forget, the enormous canvas snow provides on which to explore color. Whether children use paint brushes or spritz bottles, their whole bodies are thrown into the creative process as they enjoy putting color anywhere and everywhere.
Winter also has much nature and wildlife to enjoy. Our children make bird feeders to hang on frozen branches, giving us the perfect opportunity to observe birds and squirrels. Children eagerly feed and care for our school chickens while having thoughtful discussions about how to keep them warm during these cold months: “What would happen if their water froze? How can we make their coop nice and cozy?”
This inevitably leads to curious discussions about other animal habitats in winter. “Where do they sleep?” “How do they find food?” The snow highlights the tracks of animals who use our space, leaving clues to ponder and stories to create.
Routines of the Season
Children at Kinderberry Hill love to go outside every day. Though we may not stay out for the entire day during the winter months, we stay as long as the children are safe and comfortable. Doing this requires a lot of snow clothes... and practice! Getting ready simply becomes part of our everyday routine. As children go to their lockers and pull out their outdoor items, they know to put on snow pants, then their winter coat. While this is happening, teachers position themselves to help with zippers or assist in getting those many thumbs in those many thumbholes. Then, out they go! This process can take a bit of practice during the beginning of the season, but with time, it becomes a regular part of the daily routine and well worth the time spent outside.
Upon our return inside, mittens are hung to dry and boots placed by the door. One tip we recommend is asking parents to bring in two sets of mittens. This way one pair can be drying while the other pair is keeping fingers toasty warm during play.
Keeping Parents Engaged and Excited
Our parents are overwhelmingly supportive of our outdoor classrooms at Kinderberry Hill. They see how excited children are for their days outside, as well as how much they have to share at the end of these adventures. One of the first informational pieces we shared was a letter explaining the outdoor classroom and the many benefits of outdoor play. Sharing the physical, social-emotional, sensory, and executive function benefits of outdoor play helped underscore the educational importance our families desire and deserve.
Including families is important to us. One way we have done this is by asking for donations of tires, sticks, milk crates, dishes, and so on, which we add to our classrooms. We have also invited parents to join us in enhancing our spaces by donating or building benches, picnic tables, and gardens. What a great way for parents to see and enjoy all of the wonderful experiences available to children in our outdoor spaces throughout the seasons.
Benefits of Time Outdoors
One of the most important benefits we see are the sparkling eyes of children running and playing outdoors. Our teachers happily report naps during these days are long and peaceful, not to mention drop-offs are a snap! Research shows that children have lower stress levels when given ample space and freedom to move and explore as they wish. This is exactly what we hope to provide children through regular use of our outdoor spaces.
Questions we pondered at the beginning of this outdoor classroom journey included: “Will children still receive the same quality of education as past students from our schools? Will they be ready for kindergarten if they are spending much more time outside?”
We reviewed our past and present assessment scores, and our data shows scores remained consistent. We expect to see executive function skills rise, as well. We believe children are better able to focus and stay calm during outdoor classroom days. In our experience, children who typically prefer to move from activity to activity seem to flourish during long days outside. Their ability to focus shines in our outdoor classrooms. One of our preschool teachers summed it up best:
“The outdoor classroom provides the opportunity to have nature act as an additional teacher,” said Anne Korsmo Grice. “When we put nature in the driver’s seat, the classroom immediately becomes a place full of new wonder and curiosity, which also serves to soothe the child’s busy senses.”
What Is Next for our Outdoor Classrooms?
Through his work, Jim Greenman reminds us, “Space speaks to each of us. Long corridors whisper ‘run’ to a child; picket fences invite us to trail our hands along the slats. Physical objects have emotional messages of warmth, pleasure, solemnity, fear; action messages of come close, touch me, stay away; or identity messages of I am strong, or I am fragile.”
We introduced our first outdoor classrooms three years ago, to our pre-kindergarten programs. The second year we saw these elements popping up in our toddler spaces and now, this past year, our babies are stepping into the spotlight. We are very excited to see what will grow as we thoughtfully begin to create safe, enriched outdoor opportunities for our youngest learners at Kinderberry Hill. A few of our schools have begun this process and the parents have been resoundingly supportive. Our families and teachers, simply cannot wait to give ALL of our children the inspiring benefits of extended outdoor play.
Lisa Swan, director of operations and Sara Reichstadt, education coordinator of the esteemed Kinderberry Hill Child Development Centers, were both inspired to bring outdoor classrooms to their seven schools. As Reichstadt’s research led her to explore the benefits of outdoor play, Swan was introducing her grandchildren to gardening which led them to consider working with Nature Explore’s certified outdoor classrooms. Watching children fully engage in full body play and explore our rich, nature infused learning environments is rewarding in so many ways. Each outdoor classroom is unique to the school and community it serves. From feeding the chickens on a grassy hill to tending gardens amid skyscrapers, our outdoor classrooms offer unlimited nature education and play experiences. Whether it is the first snow fall of the season or napping outside on a balmy day, the children at Kinderberry Hill are fortunate to have four distinct and beautiful seasons to enjoy!