Muskoka is an ideal place for an outdoor classroom. Algonquin Park lies just beyond our small town and its trees tower over the back of our schoolyard.
My commitment to taking my students outside every day is supported by Richard Louv, author of Last Child Left in The Woods; Saving Our Children From Natural Deficit Disorder, who states, “Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses, and, therefore, for learning and creativity.” Outdoor classroom experiences are not just for rural students. City children can benefit from the rich experiences offered in local parks and neighbourhoods.
To model my love of the outdoors and inspire my grade 1 class to experience nature regularly, I took them on a year-long inquiry called “My Place Amongst Trees.” Our outdoor classroom, the wooded area behind the school, became the place where they observed and sketched trees. When art was integrated into the other curricular areas (science, math, health, physical education, social studies, reading, and writing), magical things began to happen. Children with fast-paced lives outside of the classroom began to slow down and look closely and think about what they were looking at. This deepened their learning.
I began by reading Old Elm Speaks by Christine O’Connell George, an illustrated collection of prose and poetry with a strong voice and much imagery that the children responded to immediately. Reading materials were available in text sets, including both fiction and non-fiction books, poetry and magazines. I used picture books such as Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert and Sky Tree by Thomas Locker to promote different types of writing and to encourage discussion about the changes in trees throughout the year.
Following an excursion into the woods, or an experience of tree art, children’s writing became prolific. Their language and vocabulary became richer with each new experience. When children look closely at something in art, their writing is not only richer in vocabulary and better organized, but is filled with the enthusiasm of an expert. The Ontario curriculum expectations for grade 1 reading and writing were easily met.
I planned several art lessons with trees as the focus in collaboration with Andrea Bell Stuart, a teacher with a grade 1/2 multi-age classroom in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Students sketched and painted trees. They were inspired by the work of Canadian artist Tom Thomson, who painted the trees and foliage of Algonquin Park using thick paint and obvious large-brush expressionist strokes. My students sketched in hard-covered, coil-bound sketchbooks in our own little park on the schoolyard. Back in the classroom, they worked on large pieces of water colour or cartridge paper, using a variety of art techniques to express what they knew about trees.