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teaching outside Amplified

Students at University Cooperative School in their new learning space. (Photos by Christi Cruz)

Perspective | Teaching outside during COVID is chilly and rainy, but also amazing

How outdoor education opens up a new world for students.

Teaching outside? I never thought I would be a full-time outdoor teacher. Never. I love to be in the outdoors (in the summer) because, come on, we live in the beautiful PNW and it is gorgeous. Fall is absolutely beautiful, too! 

teaching outside AmplifiedIt rains a lot, of course, and that’s lovely when you are not standing in it for long periods of time with 4- and 5-year-olds. The pre-coronavirus time Christi just loved looking serenely outside the classroom window during really cold, rainy days while an adorable preschooler would tell us the weather report. We would sit around dry and cozy, singing the rain song. 

Of course we spent time exploring outside, too, but we knew it was a limited time of rain on our little heads, so that made it just fine.

I certainly did not see myself spending the past five months teaching outside for up to 6.5 hours a day in every single kind of weather and actually enjoying it. Actually loving it.

Who have I become? 

March to May

I taught Zoom classes at two preschools. It was great fun for the performer in me. It is also a tremendous amount of work that we teachers try to make look easy. Heads-up: It’s not. 

Summa-Time

Theater in the Park: Last summer, I taught for eight weeks outdoors to a very limited group of pre-screened, well-masked, 6 feet apart, highly sanitized K-5 actors through my business, Wedgwood Drama Studio. We created movies rather than outdoor shows so we could still have families enjoy the work, and we could stay safe. 

It was a wild success and very impressive how quickly the students were able to adapt to masks on at all times and how they could easily gauge what 6 feet apart looked like. The kids desperately just wanted to play and were willing to do whatever it took, no matter the new rules. They spent their free time at camp building elaborate fairy houses, making up games, telling stories, writing in their journals, dancing and playing chase. 

It was so fun. It was summer.

Gearing up for fall

I teach at two preschools this year.

Woodland Park Cooperative School is a preschool-kindergarten program with its own dedicated outdoor classroom. The wonderful parts about this space are the garden, the water pump, the working tool bench with real tools, the art table, the playhouse, and all the loose parts, stumps, ropes, and mud, all in the heart of Fremont. We have outlets to plug in drills and glue guns and our coveted Crockpot full of rocks, which we use to warm our hands. (Thanks to Teacher Rachel!)

University Cooperative School is a K-5 independent school that recently launched a new Pre-K program and I am the lucky new teacher. Even though the school had remodeled a gorgeous and enormous new space for Pre-K, we knew we wanted to be safe and be outdoors as long as we could. I was honored and a little overly confident that I would be just fine outside, having already taught for eight weeks in a park. 

University Co-op sets up the Pre-K to fifth grade outdoor learning spaces in various areas throughout beautiful, wooded Cowen and Ravenna parks. We are close enough that we can see each other on our daily walks, but far enough away. The park is incredible. More on that in a bit.

Cooperative schools don’t mess around. Families are there 100% to support their teachers, their kids and their community. They are invested in making it work. Our families went in full force wanting to support in-person learning as safely as possible. Both schools acted quickly and cautiously to ensure the experience was safe, fun and workable for everyone.

teaching outside Amplified

 

There were countless hours of health and safety meetings, screening protocols and a million emails. The words “pivot” and “flexible” are thrown about endlessly. We have to be ready to change it all on a dime, if need be.

A typical day now

U Co-op parents set up tents and tarps and we bring our wagons with a hand-washing station, a pop-up potty and materials for the day. We set up an outdoor learning space.

I started off the year reading stories as kids arrived to our space, but as the weather turned, my teacher assistant, Laura, and I quickly realized we were going to have to switch up our game plan for teaching outside in all conditions.

The weather dictates our day. If it’s cold, we play fun exercise games. In one pile are numbers and another are exercises. We pick from each pile. We count, we run, skip, plank, push up or whatever it is, in English and in Spanish. Next thing you know, we are all warm and the teachers are sore.

If it’s pouring, we have a disco ball, music and a bubble machine under our tarps and tent for a dance party. Warm and dry. (Lots of “Frozen” requests.) 

If it’s mild, we might start with stories and have some free choice games and art available.

 We walk. And, I mean, we walk a lot. On a typical day, we walk about 5,000 to 6,000 steps in a few hours. It doesn’t feel like that because we are busy. We explore the gorgeous parks and never tire of the things we find and see. 

The kids are dressed in layers and packed up for the day. They carry their packs with them on our school adventures. Moving not only keeps them warm, but helps make the learning space endless. We gather sticks, pinecones, leaves for art, observe owls in trees, play in the ravine, make mudpies, build leaf piles, and really have a chance to absorb the beauty all around us. Yes, it gets cold and it will pour on us sometimes. Yes, we get sad kids and sad teachers. We know now from experience and natural consequences what to wear and what not to wear. Most of the kids don’t care about being wet. We have a bag of extra clothes for kids who need them. We eat lunch and a parent will bring a thermos of warm tea daily for the kids.

Do the kids like it? Yes!

They are digging in hard to play after not being able to see people. Outside there is always something to see or do. This setup we have at the park would be an impossibility to recreate in a classroom setting. We have learned that if it is raining too much, we need to take an indoor break and will have a day of Zoom. We try not to use it for younger grades, but if it is too cold or too windy, or if there are thunderstorms, we will stay home.

My curriculum was always seasonal and follows the kids’ interests, and there is no way to not do this when you are outdoors. You always know the weather. You know what’s happening to the trees, the puddles, the mushrooms, other people who may use the park, the whatever is around you. It truly has changed my perspective as a teacher. The kids respect the space. 

Nothing about any of this is easy, but it is worth it when you get to see their masked faces joyfully running, playing, giggling and doing their most important work at school, which is to play.

What I can tell you about this experience is that preschoolers are the very best humans. They are tiny teenagers and are mostly honest, and desperately need their independence. They are flexible, resilient, open, and can generally go with the flow. Just give them the appropriate rain gear and let them go!

I love teaching outside. I hope to make it back in the building sometime, but I can guarantee you I will never be the same teacher after this amazing experience.

Opinion | Taking school outside could be the answer

My family is outside 3 hours a day, and we love it!

Not everyone in the Seattle area loves the outdoors, and here’s why

About the Author

Christi Cruz

Christi Cruz is the Pre-K teacher at University Cooperative School, 4’s teacher at Woodland Park Cooperative School and owner of Wedgwood Drama Studio. She’s a proud mom of three: Diego (17), Lucas (13) and Cecilia (10), and lives in Northeast Seattle with her husband, Wil, and cute puppy, Winnie.