Outdoor Education – Christ Lutheran School Partners with Sarett Nature Center and West Side Christian School

Outdoor learningChrist Lutheran School has been piloting an integrated nature-based preschool component with their youngest students this year. Imagine children learning in an outdoor setting….painting at easels, enjoying circle time under the shade of brightly-colored sails, and taking advantage of all the learning opportunities that an on-site ravine and creek have to offer. This reality is the silver lining to the Covid pandemic for this class of preschoolers.

The concept of Forest School was first established in countries like Denmark and Sweden in the 1950s and it has been catching on in recent years in the U.S. Numerous studies have documented increased school performance, as well as benefits to physical and mental health in students exposed to outdoor learning. “The benefits are undeniable,” said Janet Staal, Director of Outdoor Education at West Side Christian School. WSCS began their outdoor education program in 2013 and immediately saw positive results. WSCS is partnering with CLS to share their experience and enable CLS to hit the trail running.

“Being outside ignites excitement and curiosity in young learners that cannot be replicated in the classroom,” says Sue Veurink-Meyer, the Director for the CLS preschool program. In addition, she notes that the lack of exercise in today’s society “negatively impacts a child’s cognitive development and psychological wellbeing, both of which are greatly improved with increased exposure to nature.” She says “a developmentally appropriate preschool should be hands-on and multi-sensory. Nature absolutely engages all the senses, and provides an environment that is rich in language, cognitive, social emotional, and physical learning opportunities.”

This year’s preschool parents overwhelmingly agree. “I have been so impressed with the program this year. My daughter loves the teachers, the activities, and being outside so much. She has improved many of her gross motor skills and has become more aware of and interested in the nature around her.” says Tracy Wier, who has a child in the program. Another parent notes that “the hands-on learning they are getting is helping them to become critical thinkers and problem-solvers and to be creative in their ideas.”

CLS is also partnering with Sarett Nature Center as it continues to expand its outdoor education program. CLS plans work with the naturalists at Sarett to create opportunities for students to learn onsite at the school’s campus, which is an impressive 14-acre wooded parcel with its own creek and eco-system. Students will have an opportunity to learn at the Nature Center, as well.

“Our ultimate goal is to expand this to a school-wide program, which will enhance our existing curriculum and create a lifelong appreciation for God’s wonderful creation in our students,” says Tamara Paulun, Chair of the Board of Education at CLS. “We are uniquely positioned for this opportunity as a result of our distinctive campus.” Future plans for the program include a raised garden, several mud kitchens, and an outdoor structure to provide shelter from the most extreme elements.