Early Childhood Education New York City Play Students Teachers

Teachers: Why Not Shift to Outdoor Learning?

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A group of New York City teachers argue in The New York Daily News that the best way to restart the schools, especially for young children, is to hold classes outdoors. They do not address the problems of rain and freezing weather.

Liat Olenick, Darcy Whittwmore, and Heather Costanza see many virtues in outdoor learning.

Holding classes indoors in a city with over one million students, they write, will create dangerous and unhealthy conditions. Why not grab this opportunity for creative solutions?

Move the younger children outdoors, they say, while keeping high school students online.

Outdoor learning is a tried and tested fit for early childhood. There are all-day outdoor kindergartens in wintery Maine and Vermont, in which children dress for the weather and learn outside nearly every day. Vaunted models of early childhood education like Reggio-Emilia emphasize outdoor exploration because ages 4-8 comprise the crucial stage in which multisensory, interactive learning is essential for children’s cognitive growth. Outdoor learning offers children authentic, stimulating experiences that foster skills like creative problem solving, independence, flexibility and resiliency as they form a deep connection to the natural world. Learning outdoors also offers possibilities for culturally responsive, place-based learning, giving students hands-on, meaningful opportunities to engage and connect with their communities.

In the context of COVID, outdoor learning becomes even more appealing. Elementary students are more likely to live near school, making finding a space that works for families without needing public transit more feasible.

And per current guidelines, the requirements of indoor learning — sitting six feet apart, no contact, no sharing materials, and staying in one enclosed space for hours on end — are not developmentally appropriate for young children.

If we move outdoors, kids will have room to be kids without fear of punishment or infecting someone they love. Given the ongoing criminalization of students of color in schools, we fear the consequences of imposing new, high stakes social-distancing rules on all, but particularly on our youngest students.

We have the space to make outdoor learning work. New York City is home to 28,000 acres of public parkland, more than 1,100 school and community gardens, plus schoolyards, rooftops, cemeteries, beaches, private outdoor space and even parking lots or closeable neighborhood streets which could be spruced up with benches and planters.

These investments in public space might even foster greater equity in our city; experiences in nature are essential for children’s mental health, but green space is often concentrated in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

Transforming our streets and playgrounds into possibility-rich outdoor classrooms could be a way to equalize access to nature at a time when many outdoor programs serving children of color have been shuttered.

Outdoor learning will not be perfect. It will require support from schools, parks, neighborhood institutions and families to plan for site-specific challenges. But compare that with our other two options: Fully remote learning, which means zero childcare for caregivers and especially fails our young students, or a blended, classroom model for 1.1 million students that is likely to put our most vulnerable communities in grave danger.

This is our clarion call. We hope it spurs intrepid leaders to consider outdoor learning as a viable option for all of our youngest students during COVID and beyond. Organizations around the country, including New York private schools, are already developing proposals to take learning outside. With a little imagination and support from our city, we could make it happen here — not just for the privileged few, but for all.

Olenick, Whittemore and Costanza are public elementary school teachers in Brooklyn.

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