Inclusion in the Outdoor Classroom
Join the discussion! Susan will be answering questions and chatting more about her experiences on the discussion board from Dec. 3 through Dec. 7. Stop by to discuss this important topic and get your burning questions answered.
My name is Susan Lancey, and as an Early Childhood Special Educator I am passionate about teaching children with learning differences through their experiences in nature. The school I presently teach in is located in a small community in the heart of the Green Mountains of central Vermont. I teach 3-5 year old children in a fully inclusive public preschool program. This is the second year we have included a forest classroom program called ECO (Educating Children Outdoors) in our weekly curriculum.
When we first considered adding a forest classroom to our preschool program I was a little apprehensive about how our children with significant disabilities could be accommodated in such an unstructured and open environment. I knew it would take some pre-teaching and specialized support systems to help our children participate fully in the program. One of the ways I accomplish this is by creating a social story to introduce them to the forest classroom with visuals that explain what they can expect to experience in this new environment. I also take them to the forest classroom independently to introduce them to all of the different areas and alert them to boundaries and expectations.
The easiest way to talk about some of the other ways we have learned to foster our students’ successes is by describing a typical ECO day.
On Wednesday mornings, our preschoolers come to school very excited about spending the whole session outdoors. In our climate, most times this means wearing lots of extra clothing. To help our children get ready more independently, I created a picture schedule showing each step to take in getting dressed for ECO. All of the children have benefitted from this visual. Transitions can be tricky for many children in this age group, so we use a visual schedule at the beginning of the session to let the children know what we will be doing that day and the order we will follow. We incorporate a lot of songs into our transitions and our programming. Children usually connect well with music!
As we leave the school building, we activate our senses by putting on our “owl eyes”, “deer ears”, and “bear noses”. We stop at “Lookout Mountain” to see what has changed in the landscape from the previous week. The children notice even the most subtle changes in the landscape there. Next, we go to our forest classroom and play an organized game, have a short circle time, and then spend the rest of the session enjoying some forest free choice play. We have developed several centers. A mud kitchen, coyote hill, the tire swing, climbing hill, loose parts, and I usually have one special activity. The special activity is sometimes an art project or a cooperative project like building a fort or a scarecrow. I always give the children a 5-minute warning when free choice play will be ending. We have a token reward system when our children follow our 3 Cares: Taking Care of Ourselves, Taking Care of Others, and Taking Care of Our Environment.
At our closing circle we each say what we are thankful for or what we enjoyed most about ECO that day. Then we thank the forest and pack up to go home.
I have found that the benefits in providing this natural environment for our children with disabilities has made it well worth the extra time it takes to pre-teach and prepare any special supports. Children with expressive language delays engage more with their peers in nature, children develop their fine and gross motor skills, and the sharing and turn-taking experiences foster social and emotional development. One of the aspects I appreciate the most is the perfectly balanced sensory stimulation our children experience in nature. Not over stimulated or under stimulated, but just right. And the best part for the parents is the early bedtime their children are ready for that evening!
Want to know more? Join the discussion with Susan.