Ask the Expert
Unstructured outdoor play is becoming a rarity in American childhood, with a series of studies finding in recent years that today’s children spend less than an hour (often far less) playing outdoors, with hours of recreational time spent indoors on screens. Knowing that time spent outdoors with the freedom to explore, experiment and interact with nature is key to children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development, the faculty and administration at Fredericksburg Academy have cultivated a learning environment where the school’s many outdoor venues are viewed as classrooms, and where faculty are encouraged to develop lessons that regularly put students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade in touch with the natural world. As our November Expert, Fredericksburg Academy’s Head of Lower School Patricia Estes and First Grade Teacher Brittany Austin talk about one of these projects, and how it fits into FA’s overall commitment to outdoor learning experiences.
Q: Why is outdoor learning a priority at Fredericksburg Academy?
Patricia Estes, Head of Lower School: We know, through a substantial body of research, that outdoor experiences benefit children in many ways, including improving academic successes, creativity, problem-solving skills, focus and attention. These experiences also help reduce student stress levels, develop resiliency, promote inclusion and improve positive social skills. When we help children understand how living things affect other living things, they can then develop an understanding of how their own actions affect others. Could there be a more valuable understanding? Knowing all of this and working in an independent school environment has allowed the FA faculty to infuse outdoor learning into everyday learning experiences.
Brittany Austin, first-grade teacher: This really aligns with our classroom philosophies, and it’s part of what brought me to FA as an educator. When I was in graduate school, I chose to pursue a thesis topic on nature-based learning and the influence it has on language and literacy. The research opened my eyes to the fact that the benefits of learning in nature aren’t limited to our youngest learners. Exposing students of all ages to nature on a regular basis has not only academic benefits but also social, emotional and mental health benefits. I made it my own personal mission that this was something I was going to do in my classroom. Based on the research and science, I knew it was beneficial and the benefits were essential building blocks for all students.
Q: How did the Story Walk come to be?
Austin: We have always taken the students on walks and nature hikes on our campus. It’s on over 40 acres and includes a wooded area with a creek that is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. This opens up so many possibilities for lessons at all levels of our PK-12 school, and we are very lucky to have access to it. After FA returned to in-person learning at the start of the 2020-21 school year, I really wanted to create something in this space that would bring our students peace and encouragement. My husband helped me build the stands, which are wood with a plexiglass hinged lid so that I can easily switch out the books. Each stand is meant to hold a two-page spread of a children’s book so that students can walk from stand to stand and read the entire book. I try to switch out the book every month or season.
Q: How has the Story Walk been received by students?
Austin: They are just so enthralled with it and so excited to get to the next stand. Last year, each book was put up, it was amazing to see kids who either didn’t like to be outside or didn’t like to read get excited by it. It’s also brought our whole community of classrooms together. Earlier this month I put up poems so that each stand has a poem by a different author. There’s a little something for everyone, from pre-kindergarten to longer and more complex poems for fifth and sixth-graders. I hope to have the children writing and illustrating the books that we put up in the future. I would love to feature their work so they have that additional sense of pride and encouragement knowing there is no limit to their knowledge and that they are truly unstoppable.
Q: How does this fit into the bigger picture of the role that outdoor education plays at FA?
Estes: We see the woods and other outside spaces as the classroom. Spaces are cleared in the woods for class gatherings, exploring and learning. Classes follow the seasonal changes in animal presence, leaves and trees, or the water quality, depth and temperature in the creek. Students aren’t reading about erosion sitting at a desk, but rather, they are seeing, experiencing and following the erosion in the area. Older students read a novel about survival and travel to the woods to determine how they would survive themselves if stranded there. The Story Walk is a beautiful new addition to our wooded area that infuses shared literacy experiences along the way. This year, first-grade teachers are planning to have their students and parents take a night hike and read “Owl Moon” by Jane Yolen along the Story Walk as a part of their study of owls. They will enjoy a cup of hot chocolate and take away the memory of quietly experiencing the company of good friends, a good book and perhaps a meetup with a feathered night creature.
Q: Are there other outdoor spaces on campus that uniquely contribute to this type of learning?
The natural Playscape is another intentional learning space. Classes and families can visit the Playscape simply to play, explore, and experience a more natural play space. This space is used for learning from prekindergarten through fifth grade. The space is ever-changing, and that change is guided by the teachers and the children. Last year the fifth graders worked with their teachers and a Middle School science class and their teacher to test soil as well as plant a pollinator garden. All classes were able to follow and learn from the progress of that creation. This year we are adding blueberry and raspberry bushes along with persimmon and pawpaw trees. I am looking forward to the children being able to appreciate the fruits, and especially to seeing them pluck a berry or fruit from a bush or tree and experience the pleasure of its gift. I am also hopeful that once we have a substantial crop, we can share those gifts with the local community by donating to the Food Bank. We have been able to do that for years with our vegetable garden, and it is exciting that in the near future we will add fruits to our deliveries.
To learn more, visit fredericksburgacademy.org.
Stay tuned to the Fred Parent Facebook and YouTube channels in November for a video interview featuring Fredericksburg Academy educators.