Second Nature: Learning Outdoors in Waldorf Education

This summer, our faculty and staff are busy creating beautiful, sun-shaded outdoor classrooms across our 11-acre campus so that our students may more safely return to in-person education in September. (Read more here.) While outdoor classrooms may sound nontraditional, learning outside is, in fact, nothing new in a Waldorf school.

In Waldorf education, building a relationship with nature is central to a child’s development. Time outdoors teaches children about the Earth’s natural rhythms and cycles, allows them to experience natural phenomena before studying them in a classroom, and fortifies the child’s relationship with and respect for the natural world. To learn more about Waldorf schools and their relationship with nature, please check out this wonderful piece, “Waldorf Education and the Nature Connection,” from the blog Loving Learning by our colleagues at Philly Waldorf School.

At Marin Waldorf School students in every grade, starting in preschool, spend a large part of their day outside, rain or shine. Kindergartners take weekly hikes in the hills near campus and learn that, as the saying goes, “there is no such things as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Throughout the grades, the relationship with nature that was built in early childhood continues through gardening, environmental education, outdoor education trips, and weekly hikes off campus.

For many of our students, a snowy ascent up Mt. Shasta or jumping into nearby Miller Creek during an environmental education class may be among their best memories at school.

6th Grade class trip to Mount Diablo.

A group of kindergartners stops for a snack on their weekly hike to Dragon Mountain.
Third graders harvesting in our school’s garden.
A 6th grade social ethics class takes places in the shade of an oak tree on campus.
A group of first graders climbs a waterfall.

Like Marin Waldorf Schools, many Waldorf school across the country are finding its an easy transition to create safer outdoor classroom spaces for fall 2020. Sanderling Waldorf School in Vista, California, was recently featured on their local CBS station for creating an outdoor program. Watch the story here.

Atlanta Waldorf School was featured in the CNN article “More than ever, we need nature. It makes us and our children happier.”

The many benefits of connecting with nature and learning outside have been studied by scientists and psychologists—long before the pandemic made the reality of outdoor classrooms even more urgent. Here are a few of our favorite recent stories about outdoor learning.

The Great Outdoor Classrooms

At Marin Waldorf School, we nourish the relationship between children and the natural world. Starting in early childhood, our students spend ample time outdoors, playing, hiking, and lunching beneath the oak trees. As grades students, they hike in the open space that surrounds our school, care for and study our campus flora, and work in our school’s abundant garden.

We are building on that foundation now. This summer, we are creating open-air classrooms for each grade, scattered across our 13-acre campus. (In the drawing above, you can see a snippet of our reimagined campus map, with outdoor classrooms for each grade level.) The classrooms will allow for fresh air and maximum social distancing—and of course they will also be beautiful! To the left, our woodworking teacher Mr. Neale paints one of the blackboards that will be installed in each of the classrooms. Lap desks, hay bales, and sun shades will follow.

There is strong research to suggest that outdoor classrooms would be safer for students during a pandemic, but are they effective places to teach?

Last week, many people in our community noticed this fascinating story in the New York Times (right), which documents the use of outdoor classrooms in early 20th century New York to fight rampant tuberculosis infection in the city.

The article outlines the compelling safety reasons for building outdoor classrooms (“one of the few things we know about the coronavirus with any degree of certainty is that the risk of contracting it diminishes outside — a review of 7,000 cases in China recorded only one instance of fresh-air transmission”). However, it also outlines the emotional and pedagogical benefits of being outdoors.

Among other compelling research, author Ginia Bellafante shares the following: “A 2018 study conducted over an academic year looked at the emotional, cognitive and behavioral challenges facing 161 fifth graders. It found that those participating in an outdoor science class showed increased attention over those in a control group who continued to learn conventionally. At John M. Patterson, an elementary school in Philadelphia, suspensions went from 50 a year to zero after a playground was built in which students maintain a rain-garden and take gym and some science classes, the principal, Kenneth Jessup, told me.”

This morning, the Marin Independent Journal shared another story, “Marin school finds pandemic workaround: the outdoors,” about the local Terra Marin School in Mill Valley, which is going to be operating outdoors this fall.

We’ll be sharing more photos and updates of our classrooms this summer, as well as more research about the benefits of outdoor learning, so please follow along.

The Vortex: A 7th Grade Lesson (Video)

Throughout the grades, the Waldorf curriculum is interdisciplinary and experiential, helping students make connections between different subject matter and to understand their place in the natural world. This week, our gardening teacher, Ms. Betsyann, shared this example of how two subjects can be beautifully integrated in the 7th Grade curriculum.

Ms. Betsyann explains:

Kristine Deason asked for a small contribution about the marvels of the world of nature as they relate to the Fibonacci sequence or golden spiral. The common vortexes that we see in nature are tornadoes, dust devils, rivers, eddies, tidal action, hurricanes, and leaf swirls. In this video I chose to concentrate on the vortex created in a Biodynamic stir.

A Morning Hike With Ms. Lisa

Last week, Ms. Lisa, our Kindergarten Aftercare Teacher, shared a sweet audio recording with the kindergarten classes, inviting them to join her on a morning hike. As she walks, Ms. Lisa guides the children in imagining the sights, sounds, and smells along the way. At Marin Waldorf School, our kindergartners go for a hike every Friday, so this imaginative little story fits right into their weekly rhythm.

Here’s an excerpt from the note Ms. Lisa sent to families:

Greetings! I wanted to reach out and let you know that I have missed seeing you and the children, and that I hope you are well. I have a short, simple tale to share with the children–included both in a recording (5 minutes) and in writing (with photos) for you to share with your child if you would like… Many times the children in Bluebirds, and summer camp, have enjoyed the simple stories I tell them, either about my life away from school, or stories that I make up. So in that spirit of simplicity, I’d like to share my morning hikes in nature with the children. I describe what happens, though I do take some creative license to “include” the children, as though they are hiking with me. I am looking forward to seeing all of you again soon!

Here is the recording from Ms. Lisa.

And here are the photos of her walk …

Spring Blessings: New Family Joins MWS

Throughout the world, there are reports of wild animals roaming freely in what were once crowded urban areas or tourist destinations, from the bears strolling comfortably through Yosemite Valley to pumas in the streets of Santiago, Chile.

At Marin Waldorf School, we are always blessed to be surrounded open space, hawks circling overhead, and even the occasional wildcat sighting. But our campus closure has drawn in some new and beautiful visitors. Just last week, a doe found a quiet corner of the preschool play yard to give birth to twin fawns.

Here, kindergarten teacher Peggy Rock recounts her explosive introduction to the deer family that is now making Marin Waldorf School its home.

Last Sunday, as I was attending our Sunday morning coffee, in the Morning Glory classroom, teacher Nicole came to my door. She said to come out and look. I left the meeting and went outside our classroom to see a beautiful young doe leaping back-and-forth in the preschool play yard. We thought she was trying to get over the fence, as we couldn’t figure out how she got all the way into the play yard with the gate closed. A little fawn was lying nestled immobile against the fence. It looked like it might be brand new.

The mother continued frantically leaping back and forth back and forth. Suddenly she turned and took a great leap at the building and violently broke a window in the Morning Glory classroom with her hooves. It was only then that I realized that she was trying to distract us from her baby, and that we needed to go back into the room so she wouldn’t be so anxious.

When we had backed away, she and the fawn suddenly raced toward the kindergarten play yard.  Later that day I saw her munching leaves on the hillside, gazing through the window at me quietly and peacefully as if nothing had happened to make her frightened.  She hadn’t hurt herself a bit. We continue to see her every day that we are here. Although I have only seen her with one of her babies, I hear that there are two!

It seems our new Marin Waldorf School family is making itself right at home! Enjoy a couple more photos of our dear deer, snapped by kindergarten teacher Adriana.

Outdoor Ed: Portable Hand-Washing Station

The class: Outdoor Education. The challenge: to create an outdoor hand-washing station using everyday things you can find in your home.

In this video, our outdoor ed teacher Mr. Neale shows middle school students how he created a simple apparatus you can use to wash your hands when camping, on a kayaking trip, or at the beach.

Create a portable and water friendly wash station for field trips and camping trips.

Materials
Bucket or wash tub
16 oz plastic cup ( yogurt cup)
24 inches of string
12 inches of wire (coat hanger)
A nail or screw for making holes in cup
3 sticks 48 inches long or longer, broomstick size

The featured image at the top of this post shows the handmade station created by 6th Grade student Zoe at home! Nice work.