Open Connections

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New Spaces for Learning Outside

The article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of the Open Connections Magazine.


During my seventeen years here on the Open Connections (OC) campus, I have spent many of my days learning and growing with the youth outdoors. Our 28 acre campus provides us with a plethora of opportunities to explore in nature. Frequently, our Open Program (OP) youth choose to spend the entire day outdoors, playing a game of Chip Trading on the OP porch, building waterways in the sand-pit, diving into a Real Work endeavor of caring for chickens and collecting eggs, hiking through the woods, or enjoying a picnic lunch under a tree deep in conversation with friends. Our programs have always relied on the freedoms of the outdoor spaces at OC. 


This year has brought on new obstacles, and as with any challenge, the goal is to “look on the bright side” and a positive path forward. When OC’s programs started this year, our main goal was to keep the health and safety of the youth and facilitators in mind while also continuing to provide quality programming. What could be better than to make even fuller use of our 28 acres! With the thought of holding programs outside all day, facilitators put on their “flexible thinking caps” and channeled their “creative thinking.” Facilitators collaborated and together created “new” outdoor program spaces ready to take on rain, snow, and cold weather. The excitement surrounding the new spaces was evident. Facilitators looked forward to the day when our program year would start and we could share in our excitement with the young people. As youth arrived on campus the enthusiasm continued. The jubilation surrounding the outdoor OP program space was contagious. Youth passing on their way into the woods stopped for a quick glimpse of the new space, warming of their hands around the OP fire-pit, or pausing to take a closer look at the observation area hoping for a sneak peek of a frog hopping by. 


During the weeks of on-campus learning in the fall we found that we were using “old” spaces in a brand new way. A space that was trees and brush is now a warming space for youth to explore. A previous pile of thorn brambles is now a cozy reading nook where youth can enjoy a story while listening to the trickle of the creek water flowing over rocks. Where trees have given us shade from the sun, tarps have been added for additional rain cover to keep us dry. Lab explorations, art creations, and building constructions have taken over the large tables on the OP porch.


Creativity appears to be at its finest when we are immersed in nature. Large wooden spools which are in our new outdoor space to serve as tables have been flipped and transformed into a beam and fulcrum. Youth took turns exploring physics in motion and used this as an opportunity to hone their problem solving skills to find the right placement for the beam. They explored the nuances of balance as they carefully rotated the beam across the fulcrum. The beam and fulcrum were then turned into a balance beam and later into bridges. Youth used their flexible thinking skills to create multiple exploration opportunities from a “table” and a board.


An undisturbed area has been reimagined into a purposeful space for youth to hone their observation skills. This observation area encourages youth to glimpse critters and plants growing and developing. Youth from Group Tutorial III put their Makerspace skills into practice and created a sign welcoming people to enjoy this space with their eyes only so that we keep it undisturbed. We are thankful for this opportunity to enjoy the surroundings of new life while respecting our environment. When we are on campus in the spring, we will enjoy the new tadpole hatchlings and the jumping of the frogs in and out of the creek.


This year has shown us again the importance of frequent adventures in nature. As we move forward in years to come we will continue to explore learning in the outdoors. We will investigate every nook and cranny of our 28 acre campus. I am sure our youth have some ideas they are eager to share.