A world of wonder, beyond the classroom walls

Sandy Clee, a Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) senior planner (and author of this post), was awarded an Evergreen City Builders Award, the Toyota Playground Placemaker Award, in September 2016. The award recognizes outstanding innovation in the creation of children’s nature playgrounds. Sandy has been an integral part of the team responsible for creating a new standard for ‘green’ spaces and outdoor classrooms in the SCDSB. 

Historically, school yards were a vibrant place for children to play, learn and grow. More recently, they have become a place for children to gather at recess. We fenced the perimeter of the yards, with smaller fenced areas to secure the most vulnerable students, kindergarten children. We cleared natural areas. Vegetation is minimized, with no muddy spots and definitely no wet areas. All of this has been replaced with manufactured playground equipment, in the name of safety.

These fences and formulaic play spaces have an effect on the school community. Evening and weekend free play at schools is less frequent. Students see no value in their school yard because they have no personal connection and no sense of ownership of the space. Natural play has been replaced with organized, supervised sports, and children are losing their ability to play, wonder, experience and imagine.

Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) staff observed these changes, and decided to dabble in the world of wonder. We wondered what would happen if children were not fenced in small pens, if the outdoors was considered an extension of the classroom and if school yards had natural areas. We explored what beneficial risk looks like, how families might use naturalized school yards and how educators genuinely feel about leading classes outside.

Now, after seven years of careful planning, we’ve removed fences, naturalized playground space, developed an outdoor curriculum guide and provided professional development opportunities and other support for educators.

We started with our youngest learners – those in our kindergarten program, and the results are surfacing. They are displaying natural curiosity, deep-rooted inquiry, an increase in confidence and improved self-regulation development. Educators are experiencing natural connections like never before. Children are engaged, thoughtful, eager and ready to explore. As a result, the SCDSB’s goal is to have every kindergarten class participate daily in outdoor inquiry.

The process was not easy. The enthusiasm for new outdoor learning spaces was not shared by all. We have faced physical challenges of space use and school design, as well as capacity barriers among educators, senior staff and administration. Not everyone wants to go outside. A team including individuals from the Facilities and Program and Innovation departments has removed physical barriers and increased staff capacity and comfort. We have altered physical landscapes, and offered professional development opportunities and one-on-one teaching guidance to ensure our staff and students have the tools they need to play, learn and grow outdoors.

Kindergarten in the SCDSB has transformed from lesson plans to inquiry play-based programming. It is evolving into a rich program, where all senses are explored, within the classroom and beyond the classroom walls.

To explore the impacts of outdoor learning in natural spaces, the SCDSB has partnered with the Back to Nature Network to conduct research. This is the first research program of this type in Ontario, with results expected in Fall 2017. The results will be used to support the development and implementation of outdoor learning programs.

Where can we go from here? One just needs to wonder!

Submitted by: Sandy Clee, Senior Planner, SCDSB

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