Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Get Outside and Learn!

Labor Day has come and gone.  We must acknowledge the “unofficial” end to summer, even with the continuation of these hot and humid days.  I find myself each year at this time beginning to miss the special pace of summer----the long days and time in the mornings and evenings to lounge a bit or work in the garden, to spend more time with family and friends, and especially to read.

One of my most interesting “finds” during this summer was Fuzzy Slippers Production’s video entitled Mother Nature’s Child.  I shared about three minutes of this 60 minute film during our Middle School Parents’ Night on August 30.  Our teachers will view it together on September 10.  And following that viewing, we will select a date to show the entire video to parents in order to encourage continued discussion about what I am hoping will be a growing collaboration concerning the balance that is needed in our Middle Schoolers’ lives, and truly in all of our lives, between time communicating, learning, and otherwise doing daily business----emailing, tweeting, blogging, shopping, paying bills, etc.--- with technology and time with equally important, productive and meaningful interactions in natural settings.

There is no question in my mind that we are out-of-balance and students are losing ground as they lack sufficient immersion in certain kinds of experiences that provide tremendous benefits to learning key skills---critical thinking, reasoning, curiosity and imagination, adaptability, creativity, problem-solving--- that reflect the needs of a 21st century learner.

As Richard Louv notes in his book Last Child in the Woods, children with more access to nature, received lower ratings for behavioral conduct disorders, anxiety, depression, and obesity than peers with less access to nature. Youth now know about climate change, about rain forest destruction half a world away, about overwhelming environmental problems at earlier and earlier ages. If we don't give children tools to deal with these issues, what will the impact be -- in both their health and their future actions with regards to these problems?

In the July-August Smithsonian magazine, a very interesting article by Professor Alison Gopnik was included entitled “Why Play is Serious.”  Gopnik makes a convincing argument that children (and even pre-teens) who are better at “free play” and at pretending can reason better about “counterfactuals”----that is, they are better at thinking about different possibilities.  And “thinking about possibilities plays a crucial role in the latest understanding about how children learn…They imagine the ways the world could work and predict the pattern of data that would follow if their theories were true, and then compare that pattern with the pattern they actually see.”  If we are to expect our students to have the greatest opportunities to “contribute to the world” as we state in our GDS Mission, we must support their need to “play,” to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and creators of new ways to use resources and to do things.

Outdoor Education is a big part of the Middle School experience at Greensboro Day School. We help students to learn more about themselves and each other and to expand their knowledge of the world.

Our 6th grade spends many hours each season on a local farm to experience how each subject in school can be studied in the natural world. They learn how to build boats by combining math, science, and design skills so that their boats actually float and sail in the water of our campus pond. Finally, they travel to the mountains of North Carolina for almost four days of outdoor education, service learning and initiative skill development. 

Our 7th grade attends a program developed by UNCG and associates this experience with their broader advisory goals of becoming independent learners who know how to collaborate, share leadership and responsibilities, and set their own goals for improvement. They maintain a large permaculture garden associated with their science classroom and produce food for our campus.

Our 8th grade travels to Washington, DC at the end of the year to see democracy in action and the wonders of our national treasures at the Smithsonian, after having spent the entire year with fascinating lessons of American History, and develops even more sophisticated and applied leadership skills through researching current pressing social issues, seeking local resources to study the relevance of these issues to our own lives, and presenting persuasive speeches to convince the audience of ways to approach and/or solve these issues.

I would add to Gopnik’s points above that opportunities for play, and especially pretend play, are under pressure with overly-structured schedules and activities.  And I would add even further that play in nature is most restricted due to fears regarding safety and oversight and due to a failure to provide appropriate time in natural settings.   We are changing this at GDS.  Our farm and garden experiences, boat-building and outreach projects, and trips to wonderful parks throughout North Carolina, are a testament to that.  It is going to be a fantastic school year!

Ed Dickinson, Middle School Director