Make Way for Even More Outdoor Learning!

by | Aug 18, 2020 | Homepage News, Outdoor Learning

We’re excited to learn outside even more this fall, thanks to new outdoor classrooms!

As schools prepare to reopen amidst the ongoing pandemic, many are turning to outdoor learning for the first time. At Willow, we’ve been teaching children outdoors since we were founded 20 years ago! This fall, we are excited to spend even more time outside, keeping our community safe and our students more engaged than ever. How? We’re clearing space for brand-new outdoor classrooms, dedicating space for each class right outside their classroom doors, and committing to teaching outside as much as possible. Our teachers are excited to continue to use our whole campus as a learning laboratory! 

“Unlike other schools, Willow was founded on the importance of teaching children in and about the natural world,” said Francisco Ayala, Willow’s Head of School. “Our 34-acre campus was designed for outdoor learning experiences, and our teachers regularly and intentionally incorporate nature into their lessons. This is an integral part of our philosophy, curriculum, and daily rhythm.” 

Learning Outside Every Day, Every Year

Seventh graders conduct a year-long study of the many plants on campus in science.

Even before COVID-19 changed what education looks like, Willow students were learning outside almost every day. Each year, kindergarteners adopt and track the growth of trees on campus to learn about life cycles and ecosystems. Second graders dig for fossils on campus, tying their social studies lessons to their math and science skills. Fifth graders team up with Raritan Headwaters Association to study the local watershed, starting with Willow’s on-campus stream and pond. Seventh graders conduct a year-long study of our plants in their science classes. Eighth graders measure shadows outside as part of their math lessons.

Willow students love to play outside in any weather!

During distance learning this past spring, Willow stayed committed to outdoor learning. Willow’s lower school science teacher, Ms. M, led her students in weekly Nature Challenges. In Ms. M’s third grade classes, students also used their growing knowledge of the solar system to travel through space, land on Earth, and explore their own backyards like they were seeing them for the first time.

Sometimes getting outside is far simpler. For example, last year, sixth graders often enjoyed just reading a book together under the shade of a tree in their English classes.

With recess twice a day in any weather, and little playground equipment, Willow students are accustomed to exploring and enjoying the outdoors together, even in the rain and mud!

Unforgettable Lessons Outdoors

“We’re invested in what educators know as place-based learning,” Ayala explains. “What that means is that our students are constantly getting outside of their classroom and learning more about where they are, whether that’s the environment or their local community.” Willow teachers use the campus to immerse students in the unique history, environment, culture, and art of the region.

“This helps make what students learn relevant to their lives, and it gives them meaningful experiences and memories,” says Ayala. “That’s why, even years after students leave Willow, they remember what they’ve learned here. It really inspires them to stay curious about their world, wherever they go next.” 

There’s nothing better than science class at the stream!

Willow alumna Trudy Holmes, Willow Class of 2015, agrees. “Willow’s focus on the environment helped us understand that we can learn beyond the confines of the schoolhouse,” says Holmes. “Whether it was a science class that we spent outside studying the pond or an outdoor language arts class where we wrote poetry about our natural surroundings, our minds were attuned to the size and scope of the world and the integral role we each play within it.”

Research supports the importance of outdoor learning and its lasting impact. Studies suggest it helps improve attention, memory, creativity, and physical health while reducing stress and fatigue.

“Our community is not just ready for more outdoor learning, we’re excited about it,” says Ayala. “We know from our own experience and abundant research that learning outside keeps students engaged. And spending time outside – even just at recess – is so healthy for all of our kids.”

More Time Outside in Fall 2020

Willow is clearing space for new dedicated outdoor classrooms.

Willow students will be spending up to 75% of their school day outside this fall, Ayala says, thanks to new outdoor classrooms and enhanced outdoor WiFi. These new elements build on a campus design that already encourages outdoor exploration. For example, almost every classroom at Willow has a door leading right outside. This year, the space immediately outside of that door will be reserved for that classroom cohort. Students and their teachers will work together to design it as their own outdoor learning space. 

“We’ve found that, with our small class sizes and ample outdoor space, we will have enough room outside to have the entire school population out there learning and still maintain the required social distancing,” Ayala says.

“We’re excited to see more schools embracing outdoor education,” says Ayala, encouraging educators and school administrators to reach out to Willow to learn how to do outdoor education well. “We know it’s what’s best for kids, now and really anytime.” 

Learn more about our reopening plan for fall, Willow Together, here.

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