This week’s post comes to us from “across the pond” and builds on the theme of “Using the outdoors for teaching across the curriculum”. The article has kindly been provided by Stephen J Cooper RN who also has his own blog, (https://wtcoopers.wordpress.com/), which includes photos of his recent trip to the South West to experience the Natural Connections project and Forest Schools. Steve is the Outdoor Education Coordinator, Physical Education, & School Nurse at North Hills Campus at Winchester Thurston, Pennsylvania.
Elementary students of the North Hills Campus at Winchester Thurston are studying the American Pioneers. The class of eight and nine year-olds learn about life in America during the 1800’s as part of their Social Studies Unit. In their Language Arts class, the children read from a selection of historical fiction novels with both boy and girl lead characters that details the settlers homesteading experiences on the frontier. One of these stories include Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Little House In The Big Woods. In the classroom, the students engage in developing a plan for a simulated covered wagon journey across the Great Plains as well as discuss the day to day life of the settlers.
Mrs. Connie Martin is the veteran teacher of this third grade class. She wanted to expand the Pioneer Unit to include more genuine experiences related to life during this period of time in United States history by incorporating the school’s idyllic wooded landscape. The campus offers eight pastoral acres in the suburbs of Pittsburgh,Pennsylvania and houses a three quarter mile nature trail that encompasses the property. With the help of parent volunteers and some creative collaboration with the school’s specialists, Mrs. Martin was able to utilize the outdoor setting as an engaging cross curricular component to the children’s learning.
For the culmination of the unit, the students participate in a Pioneer Day event on the back of the forested trail. They live, study, work, and play like the frontiersmen of the time. The girls dress in bonnets and the boys wear jeans with suspenders and straw hats. They gather under a tree with individual chalkboards to simulate a settler’s school experience. Regardless of the weather, a portion of the day involves real outdoor chores of gathering firewood, splitting logs, churning butter, tending the chickens, constructing fences, cooking over a campfire, and sewing their work clothes.
The Physical Education Teacher works with the class to build an actual log cabin. They learn about the types of tools the early Americans used and try their hand at notching out timbers with similar resources and building techniques. Working in small groups, the children clear a space for the Pioneer Village then stack the timbers to erect the basic log home with a functional roof. Once completed the class takes shelter in the structure to complete the remaining chores.
“This is much harder than I imagined,” one of the students commented as they lifted a log into place above the window. “No wonder it took so long for them to build their homes.”
After the children’s studies and chores are completed, they enjoy fresh bread, homemade butter, hand cranked applesauce, and hot stew that has been cooked over an open fire. Following the community meal, the school’s dance and music specialists gather everyone at the campfire for an entertaining round of traditional pioneer songs, storytelling, and square dancing.
At the end of the day, Mrs. Martin announces that it is time to return to the classroom, change back into their school uniforms and prepare for dismissal. One of the students laugh and say, “I totally forgot that we were at school.”
The cross curricular connections for the unit help establish a strong foundation of learning. However, the addition of the outdoor setting offers greater experiential learning.
These hands-on experiences in the natural settings provides a genuine and visceral perspective of how the Pioneers lived that cannot be replicated in the classroom or from reading a book.
When the children were asked the following day, “So, what have you learned about the Pioneers?” A young girl announced, “We learned HOW to be Pioneers.”