I'm excited to be hosting this week's discussion on inclusion in an early childhood outdoor classroom. I have been teaching as an early childhood special educator in a public preschool for 5 years. Last year my co-teacher and I launched a weekly Outdoor Classroom program for our preschoolers. We learned a lot over the last year and a half about what works and doesn't work when it comes to introducing children with disabilities to an outdoor environment. I believe in the benefits of connecting children with nature. The extra planning and work are well worth the time and effort invested. I look forward to connecting with you this week and answering any questions teachers, childcare programs, or others have about including children with disabilities in an outdoor learning environment.
Inclusion in a Preschool Outdoor Program
Hi Susan! What an exciting and fun day! I'm curious, did you encounter any hesitancy from your school's administration when you first proposed this? If so, what were their concerns and how did you get them on board? Thanks so much!
Hi Sarah, There was some hesitancy from our administration. There were some safety concerns because our forest classroom is a short hike from the school building. We resolved that by carrying a walkie-talkie with us so that we can radio the school in an emergency. The other concern was getting the forest classroom prep work done by our school maintenance crew. There was some clearing to be done and a dead tree had to be taken down. Because we planned ahead the work was completed the summer before we started our outdoor program.
Our administration was really positive about adding the outdoor curriculum to our preschool program because Amy Butler from North Branch Nature Center met with our team initially to explain the ECO program to us. When administrators can see that we are teaching our core standards in an outdoor environment they realize that our forest classroom is not just an extended recess.
Thank you for hosting this conversation, Susan! As a follow-up to Sarah's question, I'm wondering if your co-teachers, teacher aides, or other adults who support your students embraced the outdoor sessions right away and whether you provided them with any special training or preparation for this purpose.
Our inclusion preschool classroom includes 4 staff. 2 teachers and 2 paraprofessionals. One of my paraprofessionals embraced the outdoor program from day 1. My new co-teacher and our second paraprofessional are not as enthusiastic about outdoor activities in general. They have become more positive about our outdoor program over the last few months. While we have not provided any special training, my co-teacher and I do our planning together. Because of this, she is becoming more receptive to the importance of learning in a natural environment. She will be taking an immersion course at North Branch Nature Center this summer and I'm quite sure her enthusiasm will blossom just as mine did!
Do you have any students with mobility limitations? If so, can you give examples of how you have made modifications to activities (or the outdoor classroom itself) to support their participation?
Also, can you share examples of how outdoor learning has supported students' growth/progress in meeting IEP goals? What types of data collection strategies do you use, if any? Have you had challenges with IEP goals being written for activities in an indoor classroom - any tips or suggestions for addressing that) (ie student can put 5 beads on a string).
Hi Anna, Yes we have several children with mobility delays. There is a more gradual path that we can use to get down to our forest classroom, as our regular path is quite steep in places. We give them assistance climbing up on to the tire swing, and climb up beside them on our climbing hill in case they need help. I love seeing how they gain strength and stamina by participating in all of our outdoor activities. I have not had a student in a wheelchair yet. But we could accommodate a wheelchair in our program by clearing some brush out of the way to make the access to our mud kitchen and loose parts centers more easily accessible.
This is a great question! I usually focus more on communication and social/emotional goals in the forest classroom. The social structure of the outdoor area is so different from the classroom that children often play with peers they would not choose to play with in the classroom. This includes children with language delays and social/emotional delays. Because the children are more relaxed and spontaneous in a natural setting, I find they are able to respond to their peers and form closer bonds and friendships. This facilitates social/emotional growth and verbal communication. I also plan a fun art project that the children can participate in each week. So say we have an IEP goal of using scissors or crossing midline, I will include an activity where we need to use scissors and manipulate both hands. I then make up a quick tally sheet to collect data and also take pictures of the children working on the activity to document progress in meeting the IEP goal. Hope this helps!
Hi Susan and thanks for sharing your practice! About how much time per week are you in the outdoor classroom? Is it sufficient? If not, what would you do given more time?
We spend one full preschool session per week in our outdoor classroom. So that translates to 3 hours for the morning session and 3 hours for our afternoon session.
I would prefer to be out in the forest classroom every session each week, but one step at a time. I am thankful our school district supports us as much as they do!
If we had more time outdoors I would have more quiet time activities and develop sit spots for each child to write, draw, and reflect. I would also spend more time exploring the different medicinal plants that are native to our outdoor environment. Thanks for asking!
This is fantastic!!! Inclusive programs benefit ALL. My question is what qualifications do the staff have? do they Early Intervention certificates/degrees? or do you provide the training for your staff? What was the parent's response to an outdoor program for their child?
Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I am a licensed Early Childhood Special Educator and my para-educator is an Associate Teacher in Special Education. Our facilitator from North Branch Nature Center is a former Speech and Language Pathologist. We also have a licensed preschool teacher and her para-educator as part of our forest classroom team.
Although we do not bring our specialized service providers (OT, PT, and SLP) to our forest classroom, we find the therapies they are providing indoors carry over naturally to the outdoors. Our student with delayed gross motor development has benefitted tremendously from the climbing hill this year. The first time he made it to the top of the hill his entire class celebrated his victory. His peers, without prompting, cheered him on as he made his way up the hill.
The other thing I have observed is there is less spoken language necessary to communicate and participate in our forest classroom setting. This helps bridge the social gap for many of our students with limited verbal skills. Last school year I had a child in our program who was very minimally verbal. He was more engaged with his peers on our ECO day than at any other time during our week at school.
So glad you enjoyed the blog post!
Oh - one more thing. The families love out outdoor program!
Thank you Susan
This is so exciting that this outdoor option is available in a public school setting.