Playing and learning in the outdoors has many benefits for learners (and parents). Listen as Michele Baker, a highly qualified educator specializing in outdoor education, shares benefits and possibilities. COVID-19 has the need for increased conscious planning on our part as learners’ caregivers.
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PODCAST TRANSCRIPTSteve [Intro]: 00:01 Hello and welcome to the Parent Wellbeing and Student Learning During School Closures Edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. With the extended closing of schools, we as parents have entered into a new territory regarding what we have known as “school learning.” With this and future podcasts, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner.
Steve: 00:34 Playing and learning in nature. I’m excited today to be joined on the podcast with Michele Baker, a experienced early childhood educator currently at the international school in Brussels, having previously taught internationally at schools in Zurich and London. She has an extensive background in several early childhood specialty programs and I was just excited to have her say that she joined me here today. We initially connected over LinkedIn when we discovered a common interest in the topics of play and learning and outdoor education. So welcome Michele.
Michele: 01:19 Thank you.
Steve: 01:21 So start us off Michele, what got you interested in the in the concept of of outdoor education?
Michele: 01:30 Well, you know, as a child, I, I loved being outside. I was one of those kids that I just was always outside. I was always climbing trees. I was always building forts and I just really explored nature as a child. It just always fascinated me. And then when I started teaching, obviously that fascination still stayed with me. I really enjoyed it. And about 16 years ago, I was working at a small little church of England school in the UK and there was an invite in the county to go to a training with a forest school leader from Norway. And I had previously lived in Norway and again, enjoyed the outside when I was in Norway. So I went to this, it was, you know, a one day training.
Michele: 02:19 Well, honestly this one day training you know, we cooked on the fire, we burned wood to make our own pencils for writing with, we built forts, we made rope courses. And by the end of the day, I mean, I personally, you know, I had just found that I had been totally engaged, lost track of time. I was fascinated by everything I did. And I was like, well, gosh, if I’m an adult and I’m feeling this, this must be the same feeling that a child would have if we were learning outside. So it just really got me asking the question, why aren’t we spending more time outside? When I worked as a Rudolph Steiner teacher, we definitely spent a lot more time outside than when I moved to the church of England school where really they only went outside – you know, you went outside for recess, you had a good run around and yeah, that was good for your physical development.
Michele: 03:06 It burnt off steam, but the learning wasn’t as much being taken outside. So from that, I really got fascinated. I wanted to learn more. So I then went for a week to Norway and I studied forest education with that same person who had come over to England. And then I went back to my church of England school and I said to the head of the school, you know, I was like, can I start something called “fresh air Fridays?” And she was used to – I was the only American working in this school. And so she was kind of used to my crazy ideas and ways. And I had a background in different educational concepts and things. So she said yeah, as long as I could get parent support that she was all for it. So I did, I found a parent who would help me.
Michele: 03:49 And once a week I would take half the class with the parent. We went on adventures in the local village and surrounding nature areas with half the class every Friday afternoon. And it was just a really successful program. So that led to me wanting to know more. So I then enrolled in a proper forest school leaders course, which was actually, it was in Slough. I don’t know if you know England, but Slough is a very built up industrial kind of area. And when I went on this forest school training, I was like, how is this possible? But actually it was really good to do the training there because it was just on a little patch of green in the middle of this housing estate. And it made me again, it just made me realize that you don’t need a whole forest to get all of the qualities and the benefits of “forest” school education. You just need to be outside and you need a couple trees to be able to kind of bring the essence of what a forest school program can be. So that was a really good experience. So I then, you know, I went to three more international schools after that. And at each international school, I helped the school kind of develop wherever they were with using the outdoors. I then helped to support that school to kind of either build a full standing program within their school or to integrate outdoor learning within the current curriculum.
Steve: 05:15 Michele, what are some things that the research is telling us about children, especially being outside and in nature that would be valuable for parents to to be thinking about?
Michele: 05:30 Yeah, So, I mean, there’s really strong research to say that spending time outside increases motivation, concentration, it leads to a greater curiosity and inquisitiveness, and obviously that’s, you know, that’s what we want our kids – we want them to inquire. We want them to be interested in things. We want them to wonder. We want them to have that sense of awe and want to explore their world because that’s what leads to innovation. You know, if, if you’re interested in your surroundings and you want to know more about it, then it really does lead to that innovation, which is what we want to see in our children as they grow up and as they become adults. We want them to be the invaders of the future and it also builds problem solving skills. And, you know, there’s also a lot of research that’s coming out that indicates or shows that if a child has any form of ADHD or ADD, that actually spending time in nature and learning outside helps to reduce some of the symptoms that are associated with those conditions.
Michele: 06:37 You know, children are bombarded now with – they’re constantly being entertained by, we have screens and things are happening kind of for them. And so then that can have an effect on their ability to concentrate and their attention level. And again, being outside has shown the research shows that it increases children’s ability to concentrate and it counteracts that attention fatigue that they can sometimes suffer from because maybe they have spent a bit too much time on a screen or, you know, have been bombarded by all that stimuli that they’re surrounded by. So those things, and then, you know, there’s, I think some of the other things that are really good to bear in mind as a parent is – amazing author called Angela Hanscom, who wrote a book called “Balanced and Barefoot.” And what I love about that book is she – so she’s a physical therapist and she really talks about how spending time in nature really helps to improve gross motor skills. It builds core strength. It helps children’s posture. It also really develops the vestibular system. So children we’re finding, they don’t have as good balance as they used to. You know, when I was young and I would spend hours on end outside playing in the woods, I was balancing on logs. I was climbing trees. Kids aren’t really having those opportunities.
Steve: 08:07 I have to stop you a second because it’s just jumping in my mind. I actually posted a picture about a year ago. I was visiting my grandkids age eight and four, and went with my daughter and son in law for a walk in the woods. A nice little paro – a state park in New Jersey. But we stopped at a tree stump that was laying somewhat at a downward angle. And we had to pry the kids off of that thing. It had to be 25 minutes of them doing nothing but walking up it, walking down it, sitting on it, sliding down, sliding off. And I was thinking of all the expensive toys I bought those kids over the years. I never saw them have more fun than they did on that stump in the woods.
Michele: 09:05 Yeah. Because their body craves it. You know, they know instinctively that they need those types of movements and activities, but they don’t always have them in their day to day life. Because, you know, you think about it too. Even some of our parks swings have been removed for safety and things like that. So they’re not even – they’re often not even getting that opportunity to swing very much and swinging and hanging upside down is what helps develop the vestibular system. So, you know, all of those things really support their development. And again, I really, I feel it’s my responsibility as a teacher – you know, because again, I know I know parents’ lives are – they’re busy. Sometimes schedules are busy sometimes by the time children are picked up from the afterschool program or whatever, it’s time to go home for dinner and getting ready for bed and things like that.
Michele: 09:55 So I really feel it’s important that during the school day, that we’re incorporating these opportunities for kids. Because I
personally want to make sure that the kids that I have in my class, that they’ve had those experiences and those opportunities to develop their systems, build their core body strength and things. And yeah, you know, they have their PE and they have other programs within the school, but you can’t replicate what you experience when you balance on a log or have to navigate an uneven path. So that’s where I feel that anytime that parents can find to just have a little bit of time walking in nature is beneficial for their kids.
Steve: 10:40 As I’m listening, it’s striking me that the COVID-19 quarantine has raised the the necessity of what you’re talking about.
Michele: 10:52 Yes. Yeah. I definitely, you know, obviously this situation has had an effect on billions, you know, one and a half billion. I read a statistic just the other day that one and a half billion school students worldwide will have been affected by COVID-19. And, you know, apart from – one, you’ve got the stress levels. So their cortisol levels, children’s cortisol levels will be raised because people around them are potentially stressed. It’s stressful for them to have their routines disrupted, but also just the physicalness of being inside and not being outside and not moving their body in the way that they’re used to. I do think that a way to start to heal children from that is to find those times to spend time out in nature. You know, and nothing, again, like you say, like no expensive equipment required, you know? It’s really just – and it doesn’t have to be a huge forest.
Michele: 11:57 You don’t have to go and search for something major or amazing, just even a local park. Just make, you know, getting outside in nature, being near trees, hearing the sound of nature around you is what is needed to help. It helps bring cortisol levels down. It reduces our stress levels, both the adult and the child. And then all the other, you know, again, just focusing on that awe and wonder and balancing out the stress that they’ve been experiencing, hearing tidbits around them or information, or having the news on in the background and things like that. I think finding that time in nature is going to be very healing and supportive.
Steve: 12:44 Michele, your background and specialty has been in early childhood and I’m wondering your thoughts as you see this moving up to later elementary and middle school, high school students. Thoughts for parents with students in that age bracket?
Michele: 13:04 Yeah. I mean, I’ve – so in my school, I’ve worked with upper elementary as well with certain projects that they’ve been doing. And definitely with the older students, when we think of using the outdoors for academic subjects, again, there’s just a wealth of resources and materials that are just readily available in the outdoors. You know, if you want to be working on measurement activities, you know, figuring out the height of a tree by using a formula of measuring it’s shadow and things, you know, there’s all sorts of different things that you can do that. That engages the child. It gives older children a purpose and a reason for doing that academic study and it also connects them to nature. Research shows that if we connect children to nature, they’ll be more likely to want to protect it in the future.
Michele: 13:56 So those are, you know, those are really important reasons to get older children out in nature. And then you look at, you know, again, the same benefits apply. Having older children out in nature reduces their stress level, lowers their cortisol level and you know, it’s really gonna help them in this post COVID or during COVID situation to help balance that out. And we find, we have at ISB, we have an intensive learning support program that runs throughout the whole school and what we found I’ve really been promoting the outdoor learning environments throughout the whole school. And the ILS department has really taken it on board. And what they report back to me is that they just find that with the students in the intensive learning support program, you know, they could maybe be having a stressful and they’ll take a break and they’ll go for a walk in the forest and we’re lucky to have a forest attached to our campus that ISB.
Michele: 14:54 And my colleague says that they just calm down completely. Like, their whole body system calms down. And it’s, you know, there’s research that shows there’s trees give off chemicals that actually help us to calm down. So the trees are giving off chemicals to keep insects away, but those same chemicals, they help to calm our nervous system down. But it also, it helps it makes our body produce more of those, the killer T cells. So the white blood cells that are really good for fighting off infection. So again, what better thing to do during COVID-19 is get out into the forest to help your body’s immunity to get stronger. So that’s good for everybody. That’s good from the youngest children all the way to the adults.
Steve: 15:51 I was just going to describe that I’m one of the oldest children in this bracket and fortunate to have been living in Switzerland during the pandemic because a an hour and a half walk each day mostly in the woods was part of part of my sanity in working through this whole time. So, Michele, I really appreciate what you’ve shared with us here and if it’s okay with you, we’ll put the we’ll put the link for your website into the lead in to the podcast so parents might want to contact you directly with specific questions they have.
Michele: 16:33 Perfect. Thank you.
Steve: 16:34 Okay. Thank you. Have a great day.
Michele: 16:36 Okay, you too. Bye.
Steve [Outro]: 16:39 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley ponders out loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.