While many Vermont students will be learning outside the classroom this fall, Four Winds Nature Institute wants to take the classroom outside as well.
The Chittenden-based environmental education nonprofit has been helping educators and parents incorporate its nature-based curriculum into remote-learning plans to provide additional educational opportunities for students.
Started in 2006, Four Winds’ staff of nine educators typically works with about 100 learning communities around New England to help improve environmental literacy by connecting children with nature through structured lessons, activities, free play and exploration.
When schools closed in March as consequence of the coronavirus pandemic, Four Winds began working to adapt its Nearby Nature curriculum into remote-learning modules that teachers in grades K-6 could offer to students and families.
Lisa Purcell, director of Four Winds, said the shift to remote learning has reignited discussion about getting students into nature as educators attempt to create remote-learning plans that keep students intellectually engaged and emotionally healthy.
“We’re learning there’s an opportunity for change in education right now,” Purcell said this week.
Purcell said she worries that, as educators formulate remote-learning plans for younger students, subjects such as math and language arts have been prioritized while other subjects, including science, have been somewhat sidelined.
“Your kids don’t have to go without science.” she said.
Purcell said Four Winds’ programming also creates an opportunity for educators and parents to break up kids’ screen time while learning remotely.
“They don’t need to learn science on their screen,” she said.
Joanne Pye is a retired educator who now volunteers with Four Winds. Previously, she worked at Caverly Preschool in Pittsford where nature and outdoor play was a key component of programming.
Pye helped develop Four Winds’ early childhood program, and for the past 10 years has worked with professional learning communities (PLCs) to help teachers and child care providers learn how to involve children with nature.
Now, those PLCs help teachers address health and safety protocols around mask wearing, social distancing and hand-washing while outside.
“My personal feeling, as an educator for 30 years, is that it’s a real opportunity for Four Winds to kind of turn the tide and get teachers … more comfortable being outside,” Pye said Tuesday.
“Here, we have this great opportunity because it’s so much safer to be outside,” she said. “We just have to figure out. It doesn’t look as if our program used to look, but what does it look like now?”
Four Winds has spent the summer further adapting its programming. In addition to providing remote-learning modules to teachers, home-schooling families and private learning pods, Four Winds volunteers will help teachers run outdoor programs at schools offering in-person learning.
Purcell said about 20 schools have expressed interest in using some form of Four Winds programming this fall. About half of them have already signed on.
Julia Bonafine teaches kindergarten and first grade at Shrewsbury Mountain School. She has used Four Winds for several years, and said she is integrating the curriculum into her remote-learning plans for the fall. Bonafine said the programming is a good fit for the school’s “educating for sustainability” focus.
She credited Four Winds PLC groups with setting up teachers for success.
“There’s just a lot of protocols that really have to be in place for it to be successful,” she said. “Children really have to see the outdoors as part of their classroom.”
SMS, like all schools in the Mill River Unified Union School District, will be remote-only until at least the end of October.
“I definitely think the Four Winds curriculum and nature-based education, in general, is ... important and serves a role in helping schools to reopen safely,” she said, explaining how she is exploring ways to encourage students to take everyday classroom activities outside.
Bonafine said she plans to use Four Winds “to more deeply engage the students in writing activities.”
Last spring, she had students do a writing project on salamanders that was published in the Times of Shrewsbury community newsletter.
“What outdoor education could do in these times is the one thing that’s really hopeful and inspiring when a lot of the other things about this school year are going to be very challenging,” she said, adding that getting kids outside is a good remedy for the trauma brought on by the pandemic.
Indeed, addressing children’s socio-emotional needs through outdoor time is an integral part of what Four Winds does.
“The opportunity for talking through challenges outside allows children to start really owning the responsibility for their own behavior,” Purcell said, explaining that those responsibilities now include wearing masks and social distancing.
But while Four Winds curriculum has structured lessons, it also leave space for children to explore — what Pye calls “unstructured, explorative play.”
She said through the outdoor experience, children “understand and learn how to monitor and take charge of their own behavior.”
Sometimes that means letting them play with sticks and jump in puddles.
“They’re learning how to be safe in that kind of unstructured, rough tumble play that we don’t see kids have as much as they used to,” Pye said.