Outdoor learning is an integral part of the curriculum at the Foote School. Our campus — with its gardens, Sacred Woods, ropes course, playgrounds, and fields — is the perfect supplement to the learning happening inside the classroom as well. Field trips are another hallmark of the Foote experience, as our teachers look for opportunities to partner with the vast network of local organizations. Outside the classroom, students can explore marshes in Milford, invent at the Eli Whitney, get creative at area art galleries, practice their language skills with native speakers, and much, much more.
This week we asked our faculty to share their thoughts on the benefits of teaching outside the traditional classroom setting.
1. Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills
Each year, fourth graders select a significant individual to research and "become" as part of the annual Wax Museum project. This year they added a new twist: with the outdoors as a resource center, the students were asked to find materials that they could use to create "artifacts" that help better illustrate their research project. When the research is done, and the recycled props have been assembled, the students are stationed around campus, creating a walking Wax Museum.
The benefit of this activity is that the children see their ideas come to life. There's a planning period ... but the greatest lessons come when their magnificent sketches really don't come to fruition. So they have to adjust. They have to alter. They have to work with others to make this creation — that exists only in their mind so far — come to life. Sometimes they realize that they may not be able to do it without a little help from their friends. And it's a day of learning that they all really remember. ... We're really proud of this part of our curriculum.
—Denise Quinn: 4th Grade Teacher
2. Creativity and Imagination
Exposure to natural environments stimulates creativity and imagination, leading to increased originality and innovative thinking among students. The 9th grade art students use the school's campus as a canvas in several ways as part of their art history lessons.
We start with cave painting using the cement foundation along the gym wall. And then we usually tie that into a contemporary artist who makes art in the same way. This year we studied Keith Haring, since he made art on subway walls so that people could see them outside of a gallery. Then they use the retaining wall between the fields on Highland as a canvas for a Keith Haring-inspired mural. The campus really does reflect the art that's being learned in ninth grade.
— Meredith Andrews: Art Teacher
3. Environmental Awareness
Outdoor learning is an opportunity to raise awareness about nature and environmental issues, promoting a sense of environmental responsibility. In 5th grade, students learn about ecology by going outside. They explore the Sacred Woods here on campus, and venture off-campus to learn about other ecosystems, like the marsh at the Milford Audubon Center.
A big part of why I like to use the outdoors is because it's a nice change of pace from being in the classroom, especially when studying the environment. The best way to do that is to actually get out and be part of it. So it gives students a chance to really learn about the environment firsthand.
—Andrew Zielinski Lower School Science Teacher
First graders also get outside to make a difference. They work on our campus gardens and go out into the community to help with revitalization projects like the Community Garden in New Haven. Their work with these area organizations ties directly to their curriculum.
The students really, really wanted to revitalize the area and make it useful. So we are adding new plants to the garden. We're planting seeds and weeding, tilling the ground and making sure that the space becomes usable again for the whole community. We're going to be planting food and hoping to plant a pollinator garden as well. ... We get to incorporate so many different aspects: we need math to measure a perimeter; we use estimation skills to figure out how many weeds we can pick in one minute; we can see first-hand the insect life cycles we learn about in science; we sketch our surroundings; and write descriptions and reflections about what we see. We really take advantage of every opportunity we get to go outside.
—Kayleigh Axon 1st Grade Teacher
4. Engagement and Motivation
It's certainly a lot easier to learn when you're enjoying your environment — this also promotes greater retention and a thirst for more knowledge. We've seen that when we bring our students outside, even our youngest students are motivated and eager to learn.
Outdoor learning has really evolved in our classroom year after year, especially taking into account the children's interests, and what outdoor learning experiences they respond to. We'll weave in literature to give them some inspiration for their play when they go outside, or we'll talk about different science concepts. Being outside also gives students a chance to experiment and try something new. And it's just amazing how it evolves with each new group of kindergarteners, and is just such an important part of what we do in kindergarten.
—Alexandra Wittner Kindergarten Teacher
5. Physical Fitness
While technology can be a helpful classroom tool, it's also great when we can leave the screens behind and enjoy moving about outside. Since the 1970s, Foote students have been encouraged to challenge themselves on our woodland ropes course, yet a focus on outdoor enjoyment has been a priority since the school's earliest days. The longest standing tradition at The Foote School is May Day — it's been a school-wide celebration since the 1920s. Every year families gather on the Foote fields for a celebration of music, dance, and nature. In preparation for the May Day performances, music teachers take the students outside to the performance space for rehearsal.
Although we can practice the dances inside, it is always great to get the kids outside whenever we can. They are able to exercise more freedom in this way. They feel less confined and generally the mood shifts to one of engagement and involvement. Not only does it put them in a new environment, it just gives them an opportunity to spread out and experience May Day the way that they will be experiencing it on the day.
—Ari Sadowitz '00 Music Teacher
6. Social and Leadership Skills
Working in a different environment promotes teamwork, communication, and cooperation. We also notice that students become more empathetic and are eager to take on more leadership roles. The Foote chicken coop is cared for by the community, but the third graders have taken on the responsibility of overseeing the day-to-day coop operations.
The third graders collect the eggs and distribute the fresh eggs to members of our community. We absolutely love having the chickens on campus — that's a very special and unique aspect to our program. We absolutely love using our beautiful campus for as much outdoor learning as we can.
— Emily Paley 3rd Grade Teacher
7. Resilience and Adaptability
Opportunities for students to navigate new environments gives them a chance to adapt and persevere when faced with unexpected challenges. When the fifth graders embark on their overnight field trip to Nature's Classroom, many students have never spent a night away from their families before. Some have never immersed themselves in rural environments, either. When they come back to Foote, the students are proud of their new sense of self, emboldened and energized by the courage it took to try something new.
Nature's Classroom is an integral part of the curriculum that gives fifth graders the opportunity to take classes with teachers who are trained specifically in outdoor learning. The students learn about our environment, about our local wildlife, and how to better preserve both of those things. It's also a great opportunity for kids to express themselves through art and woodworking. It's a really neat opportunity for kids to try new things while gaining independence by being away from home. It is an invaluable moment of maturity and learning for our students.
—Ross Holzschuh Lower School Associate
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