This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020/21 issue of the Open Connections Magazine. Written by Linda Soffer, Megan Marran and Jody Fitts, facilitators of Group Tutorial I.
Open Connections is surrounded by natural beauty. From the moment you turn onto the top of the driveway, the view of 28 acres of rolling meadow and forest, dotted with the stone farmhouse and reclaimed barn, is both relaxing and idyllic. Our spacious, verdant campus is a vital and unique component of our Open Education environment, where youth of all ages and abilities are encouraged to exercise, explore and embody our guiding principles of Respect, Freedom, Responsibility, and Natural Learning.
While the visual beauty of our campus is undeniable, our nature-rich setting does much more than just provide a pretty backdrop. There is a growing body of research indicating that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of people of all ages. In his seminal work Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder Richard Louv asserts, “Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life— these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives.”
Spending time outdoors is a cornerstone of all OC programs, and each program group utilizes the campus amenities in different ways depending on the needs of the members and goals of the program. The Group Tutorial I program recognizes that the emerging learners in our 7-9 year old age group understand and integrate new knowledge best through hands-on experiences that engage the whole person and allow for flexibility and individual expression. Youth in this age group need to get up and move frequently and will readily use their kinesthetic impulses to integrate informal play with more formal learning. They are also seeking a deeper understanding of themselves in relationship with the broader community, and forming an overall view of the world and their place in its natural order. To this end Group Tutorial I Facilitators employ the campus as an outdoor classroom that encourages our youth to engage their senses, their bodies, and their imaginations in their learning process while simultaneously nurturing an intimate relationship with the natural world.
Group Tutorial I encompasses two separate days of programming, each with a different focus. On Tuesdays the emphasis rests on logic, math, and science while on Thursdays we explore cultures, the humanities and community service. Both program days seek to capitalize on opportunities to spend time outdoors engaging in a wide range of activities across a spectrum of structure to maximize kinesthetic and naturalistic learning. Youth attend one or both days. What follows is a glimpse of learning experiences utilizing the outdoors from Tuesdays and from Thursdays.
Tuesday Group Tutorial I
OC youth love spending time outside on campus and it is often a focus of questions we get starting first thing in the morning, “Are we going to be going outside today?” To which the response is always, “Of course, we go outside everyday.”
Getting outdoors is the goal for many of our activities throughout the year in Tuesday Group Tutorial I. We mindfully structure our math and science based projects to have outdoor components. One of our early activities in the year is a re-introduction of Venn Diagrams using Attribute Blocks. An engaging and kinesthetic addition to this activity that we have used over the years has been to create Venn Diagram circles on the Blacktop area and use youth chosen attributes for each circle. The youth then become the attribute blocks themselves by moving to the circle or set of circles which best describes them. This element of embodied experience helps youth to more fully integrate their understanding of this important conceptual model.
During our study of the science of sight one year we utilized the outdoors by staging three sight challenges on the Upper Terrace: a balance beam walk, throwing and catching a ball with a partner, and tossing a bean bag into a target at varying distances. Youth wore hand-made eye patches that were used to block information from one eye or the other during these activities. These tasks allowed youth to utilize full body movement to process new information about the role vision plays in balance and perception.
We utilize the entire campus on a weekly basis as we hike through the Meadow and White Pines areas, across the creek and up into the woods, immersing ourselves in the natural world. Youth hone their observation skills as they gather natural materials and collaborate to build nature mandalas. During free choice times spontaneous games of tag will pop up, or youth will develop their balance and strength via the slack line and ninja line set up by the Blacktop. The Tire Swing Environment and the Sand Pit are utilized for games of house, feats of engineering, and other nature-based fantasy play. These daily opportunities support our assertion that the physical exercise and emotional stretching that youth enjoy during unstructured, imaginative and exploratory play are essential for healthy, wholesome development.
Youth in Group Tutorial I are responsible for researching and presenting a topic of their choosing to the group each year. These Mini Peer Facilitations (MPF) include an activity portion and the youth will often choose an activity that has an outdoor component. One year we flew carp kites outside after an MPF about Japanese cultures, we tested our camera obscura after an MPF on Polaroid cameras and we had a demonstration on the hearing of dogs after an MPF on Dog Senses.
Thursday Group Tutorial I
While it seems logical that the outdoors is the territory of math and science, it is also the realm of literature, poetry and the arts. The Thursday Group Tutorial I program focuses on engaging youth in the exploration of cultures and the humanities, as well as participation in meaningful community service. The different outdoor spaces, natural materials and built environments are ideal for hands-on learning. Four of the ways outdoor learning has been used in recent years on Thursdays are: 1) Activities for building collaborative and social skills. 2) Community Service in tending the Labyrinth area of Susan’s Gardens at OC. 3) Activity challenges for reinforcing learning from stories related to foreign cultures. 4) Celebrating holidays from foreign cultures.
Early in the program year, activities are planned to help youth get to know each other better. One particular activity requires each pair or triad of youth to collaboratively create a design of their choice with natural materials gathered from the campus. Let loose outside, the groups settle on plans, scatter around the immediate area, find and collect materials and bring them back to their designated sites. What soon emerges are a collection of unique nature creations. One may be a picture of three hearts made from pink flower petals and leaves and “people” made from acorns. Another could be a 3-D “fantasy retreat” with a lounging area under an umbrella made from a large hosta leaf. Still quite different from the others could be a symmetrical mandala design including pebbles from the nearby pebble harp in the Labyrinth. The mandala might be guarded from behind by two wooden statues. All teams work collaboratively, resulting in friendly connections between the group members at the beginning of the year, and original, creative pieces of natural art.
The gardens and terraces surrounding the OC Farmhouse are named Susan’s Gardens in memory of one of the original founders, Susan Shilcock. Thursday Group Tutorial I adopted the Labyrinth area of Susan’s Gardens as a way to provide community service. Twice a year, in spring and fall, the group performs a thorough clean up. With garden gloves, rakes, spades, trowels, clippers and wheelbarrows, the group removes debris and spruces up this beautiful area. After an hour or two of collaborative labor, a neat and welcoming space reappears. Through these efforts, youth have increased their knowledge of the plants and natural features of this space, their understanding of the seasonal cycles, and their sense of stewardship of this unique part of campus. In this pandemic year, Group Tutorial I is using the Labyrinth area as our main program space on both Tuesdays and Thursdays and both groups will contribute to the care of the space.
One year, Thursday Group Tutorial I studied Celtic Culture which offered rich opportunities for outdoor immersion in multiple ways. A fictional story of an Irish girl named Fiona and her intergenerational island family, The Secret of Ron Mor Skerry, led to a morning of five activities designed to experience Fiona’s life first hand. In groups of three, the youth rotated through five stations on campus, practicing the activities as described in the story. Some of the tasks completed were: using a trowel to mix and apply “tar”(in the form of mud) to a wood plank (simulating the bottom of Fiona’s grandfather’s fishing boat); washing, ringing out, and hanging “laundry” on a clothesline; crafting an eating utensil out of aluminum foil, then setting a table in the outdoor kitchen; making footprints in the sand pit then raking them smooth (simulating the action of the waves at the edge of the sea); and rowing the OC canoe through an imaginary ocean. By physically going through the motions of these actions, youth were more able to grasp the meaning of the story and the experiences of the protagonist, as well as integrating these story elements into their memory. It was also great fun and good exercise!
Ireland is a land of many bogs, and the Ancient Celts were known to bury different things in bogs where they would be preserved indefinitely. To experiment with burying something in the ground for a long time, and to understand and appreciate the connections that exist between our modern lives and those of these ancient peoples who so revered nature, Thursday Group Tutorial I carved and dried apple heads and then buried them in a far corner of the OC campus (our closest landscape to a “bog”). The individual burial sites were marked with personal flags created with each youth’s name written in the ancient Celtic alphabet, Ogham. This activity took place during the Celtic holiday Samhain, which celebrates the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the “dark half” of the year. That same afternoon, the Open Program youth joined the the Group Tutorial I youth in a ritual ceremony, marching around and around a candle (symbolizing a bonfire) and meditating on the cycles of light and darkness (symbolizing life, death and rebirth) in nature.
Six months later, the Celtic calendar brought another ripe opportunity to enjoy celebrating and learning outdoors. The major fire festival holiday of Beltane falls halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice and for ancient Celts marked the “Light” half of the year. The first outdoor activity of the day was decorating three OC trees with flowers and colorful yarn to create traditional May Trees (also called Beltane Trees or Wishing Trees). Next, every youth found their own Ogham flag and dug up their apple doll from Samhain, noting the degree of decomposition that had occurred over six months’ time. For the final part of the celebration, youth from Thursday Group Tutorial I and the Open Program joined together again in pairs to hold hands, chant, and jump over a broomstick that represented a threshold into the future. Everyone was directly calling forth the fertile growing season of spring, summer and early fall, as Celtic people have done for centuries. In this tangible way, everyone welcomed the cultural experiences right into their very being.
For 2020-21, Group Tutorial I has expanded our outdoor programming on both days. On Tuesdays we are focused on a study of the air within us and around us, a topic that affords countless opportunities to incorporate nature-based and kinesthetic learning into our math and science studies. Our Thursday program plans to “stay at home” and dig deeper into the cultures of the native tribes and communities of North America, deepening our understanding of our own sense of place and the people who inhabited it in the not-so-ancient past. On both days we will continue to engage Mother Nature as our co-facilitator, taking full advantage of the fresh air, open space, and unlimited possibilities for growth and connection that the outdoor classroom provides.