"This all looks fun...but what are they actually learning? Will my child be ready for grade school? What does the transition from nature school to a classroom with desks look like?"
In the age of high-stakes testing and "kindergarten is the new first grade," the fear that children leaving a nature-based program will not be prepared for whatever comes next is a real concern for today's parents. There seems to be an assumption that "playing in the woods all day" does not translate to learning the skills that are needed in order to succeed outside of the forest. To this, we reply, "It depends on what your definition of 'learning' is!"
At Painted Oak, we follow the interests and curiosities of the children. This means that our program is 100% child-led within a safe and inspiring environment that has been intentionally constructed by the teachers. In other words, what the children WANT to learn more about, is what gets researched, studied, supported, and honored. Through careful observations of the children's play, and documentation of their discoveries and questions, the teachers plan lessons, activities, and games that support further exploration of the topic or topics that the students have shown an interest in. Topics of study may last a day, a week, a month, or sometimes even longer depending on student enthusiasm and continued curiosity. They are typically rooted in nature, but not always, and are place-based, meaning that we study this 'place' around us and all of the living and non-living things that make it 'our place.'
We do not approach learning by creating teacher-directed themes that change at scheduled times (i.e. the first of the week or month,) we do not utilize worksheets and directed paper and pencil tasks to assess student understanding, and we do not instruct that there is only one right way to accomplish a task. With their teachers as their guides, students at Painted Oak feel empowered to direct their own learning at 2 - 7 years old.
So what does 'learning' look like at a nature school?
It looks like children as young as two years independently putting proper gear on for the day's weather, carrying their own backpacks and being responsible for all of the contents inside.
It looks like following directions to get on a hike line, stay with the group, and help guide others who may need assistance along the way.
It looks like sitting down for the morning lesson, demonstrating focused attention on the speaker, and participating by sharing knowledge gained with a raised hand.
It looks like developing early literacy skills through the creation of sound maps, the use of nature journals, storytelling, writing notes to gnomes and fairies, reading classmates' names by sounding out the letters, listening to read alouds and recreating favorite tales on The Sapling Woods Stage.
It looks like scientific inquiry when a child selects a magnifying glass to observe a minibeast close up, or puts a series of pipes together to test if water collected from the creek will flow through the system and land back in a bucket.
It looks like the use of executive functioning skills when a child plans, organizes, and prioritizes tasks for completion.
It looks like flexibility when something hasn't gone according to plan.
It looks like self-regulation when frustration creeps in and a child demonstrates strategies to regain a sense of calm and then problem solve.
It look like risk assessment when a child acknowledges that she may fall if she tries to walk across a fallen log and then confidently engages and succeeds!
It looks like resilience when a child takes a tumble and is willing to get back up and give it another go or is soaked from the rain and knows that dry clothes are only a few steps away.
It looks like cooperation as a team works together to construct a stick fort.
It sounds like using the words to solve their own interpersonal squabbles.
It looks like time - time to ask their questions and time to find the answers together - time to roll down the grassy hill, spin until they drop, and swing to the clouds so they can fully develop their vestibular sense, which is needed for proper balance and coordination - time to climb a tree and to balance on fallen logs in order to build up their core strength so that they are physically able to sit up straight at that classroom desk when they get there.
And above all, learning at Painted Oak is about imparting the skills, knowledge, and citizenship that children need for life- whether that is on a community playground, in an indoor classroom, or day-to-day on this ever-changing planet!
We invite you to follow your own curiosities and discover more about what learning looks like at our school by following our blog. We are excited to open up our classrooms to you and to show you just how 'ready' your child will be by attending Painted Oak!