Jenison Preschool teacher, Jodi Huyser, wanted an outdoor classroom experience for her kids. She saw them in other districts, knew there was amazing academic potential, and was sure Jenison could have one too! With the help of a grant written by Early Childhood Center Principal, Lee Westervelt, the students had the outdoor gear they needed from Oakiwear [snow suits, mittens, and rain boots] and they were ready to see what they could learn outside!
The students have already explored the property around Pinewood [where this preschool class meets] to look for animal tracks and evidence of their foraging. “Our most recent lesson teaches the children how to look for signs of animals in our environment. We look for tracks and also make our own tracks! The kids love exploring and investigating! They love being out in the fresh air!” Most recently, the class broadened its research field to Hager Park, and along with the support of parents, the students are learning to examine and ask questions about what it around them every day. “Several parents help out each time so that we can break off into smaller groups. In addition to tracking animal footprints, we looked for signs of where animals eat, burrow, and go to the bathroom. We also made our own footprints, compared sizes, and made letters and numbers utilizing our own footprints. ”
To prepare for their lesson outside, the class read the book, “Footprints in the Snow“. Using the story as a guide, “we had a group discussion about how we can see animal’s footprints more clearly when there is fresh snow. Students brainstormed the different animals that may leave footprints for us to find. We even did a comparison to life size animal prints with our own hand prints [tracing our hands over top of paw prints from animals on paper]. In addition, we utilized technology to search different pictures of paw prints. From here, we took our printed animal track charts outdoors with us to look for any that may be similar.
For the most part, we saw squirrel, rabbit, human, and dog prints. Interesting enough, we thought we may see some bird tracks, but we did not. Children also looked for signs of animal scat, which they found kind of humorous! We talked about how animal tracks can be found by food sources such as berries, bark, and water. More recently, students prepared bird seed feeders that are 100% biodegradable to bring to Hager Park this week on our hike. We will continue to search for more tracks on this hike as well.”
Ms Huyser believes that students love to get outdoors to learn. “I think, too often, families do not have enough time to get their children outside because of busy schedules. So much more learning can be done outside; even lessons that are generally taught in an indoor setting can be altered to teach outside in many cases. Students get fresh air and their bodies need it!”
Students have enjoyed the change of scenery and seeing what can be learned in their everyday environments! “They love to put on their special “green suits” and head out on our outdoor adventures. In addition, parent volunteers have had great adventures with us and have had positive things to say about it. In our most recent adventure, the children were so excited to find different animal tracks and follow them. They took great pride in placing their bird feeders on the trees for the birds too!”
Of course, Ms Huyser always has a lesson planned when the class goes outdoors, but she stays flexible in case her little researchers take note of something else. “They may notice some letters in the shapes of the branches in the trees. We may practice counting pine cones on a tree. In the fall, we investigated how the leaves traveled with the stream’s current [some slower spots and some faster]. Students tipped over logs to look for bugs, worms, and salamanders. We collect samples to bring back to our classroom as well. At one point we even heard a tree fall over at Hager Park while it was raining, so we went to investigate it. The children love to play in the rain and they have the right gear to wear thanks to our grant money.”
“The most rewarding part of teaching this program is seeing how excited the students get when they are exploring outside!” Ms Huyser hopes that families will take the simple opportunities to use the world around them as classrooms as well. “I would love to see more families have the opportunity to take the time to plan a hike with their children. It prompts great conversations and discussions, promotes healthy habits with exercise, and creates lifelong memories. There is so much value in getting outside to explore nature and breathe in the fresh air. You can find so many teachable moments in the outdoors!”