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A Story of Outdoor Learning

Posted: 10:39AM June 12th, 2017 | Comments

Presentation by Julie Jarvis, SD Director of the Sustainable Schools Initative, at the 2016 Badger Bioneers Conference

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

I discovered this poem by Wendell Berry when I was in my early adulthood. As someone who always felt a sense of peace when in nature, it really spoke to me. I have returned to its reassuring words many times over the years when I was overcome with “fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be.” And then 2 years ago I had a son. And the enormity of my love for that little boy became paired with an intense desire to create a world- a better world- for him. So today, although nature continues to ground me, today, when “despair for the world grows in me,”  I don’t necessarily look to nature. I look to you. Because what gives me hope, what gives me confidence in that better future, is you. You, The Sustainability Champions, the change makers that are working across the city, the nation and the globe to create a more just, healthy, vibrant world for all.

I began working with Sustain Dane 5 years ago supporting Sustainability Champions in schools. Initially the focus was to reduce energy, and then it grew to supporting champions implementing any number of sustainability projects, including creating and using outdoor classrooms.

Today, I support teachers and educators from around our region who are taking kids outside of the school walls for hands-on, minds-on learning in school gardens and outdoor classrooms.  Outdoor learning is increasingly being celebrated across the country and across the globe for supporting academic, social and emotional learning, student health outcomes and school engagement. But although we know it is good for kids,  educators face very real obstacles to taking kids and learning outside. With the support of Sustain Dane and our GROW Coalition partners, schools across the region the physical infrastructure and the support to  ensure that outdoor learning is a viable strategy for its teachers and school personnel to better meet the needs of their students.

Recently I was talking to Denise Farnsworth, a Sustainability Champion and 4th grade teacher at Prairie Elementary School in Waunakee. She was preparing to take her kids outside to their outdoor classroom to make observations and taste some delectable garden goodies for what she calls an edible showcase. Throughout this school year Denise’s students will see the curriculum come alive in the outdoors, they will be immersed in nature’s cycles of seasons, of energy, water and matter, of growth and decay. And they will learn about themselves and others as they tend and care for the plants and animals that make the outdoor classroom home. This not only a powerful experience in learning but also in belonging.

Denise shared a story with me about a girl, a very shy girl who is part of the ELL- English Language Learners- program. It was last June and the girl had been at Prairie for a few months, but still rarely spoke or smiled. That spring day, Denise’s students were planting seedlings that the High School Agriculture classes had cared for in the greenhouse. After the class time was over and the students were released for recess, this girl stayed in the garden to plant with Denise. As they planted, they chatted and really for the first time, Denise saw genuine joy in the smile in the girl’s face.  In the outdoors, we have the opportunity to not only teach the curriculum, but to teach to the whole child. In the outdoor classroom, Denise is providing experiences where her students connect to the curriculum, to nature and to themselves and others. Denise is inspiring tomorrow’s Sustainability Champions.

This child’s experience wouldn’t have happened without that outdoor classroom space. That space would not have happened without that Champion. And that Champion found inspiration and motivation to take action through Sustain Dane.

Help more students and educators achieve sustainability wins. Donate now for Sustain Dane's Week of Wins! Thank you.

Sustain Dane's Week of Wins from June 14-21 is our annual summer campaign to share, celebrate, and raise funds for sustainable success stories! This year, we're featuring our sustainable schools & outdoor learning programs. Help students, educators, & schools achieve more sustainable wins, and help us reach our goal of 100 donors! Donate today.

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