Making Outdoor Learning for Pre-K – 2 Fun … in Winter!

CREA Educators Sarah Rodgers and Carey Truebe know how to keep learning fun, even during a pandemic … in winter. They know that if there was ever a time to take our youngest students outside to learn, this is it!

Since this fall, CREA has been providing support to SAD 75 and Brunswick School Department as they navigate the challenges of educating students during the pandemic. As part of that work, on February 9, Sarah and Carey led a workshop on outdoor teaching in winter for a group of teachers at the new Kate Furbish School (KFS) – home to Brunswick’s Pre-K through 2nd grades.

A light snow was falling, providing perfect conditions for learning about snowflakes, animal tracks, and more. Standing in a wide circle outdoors, bundled up in warm coats and hats, masks seemed a natural part of outdoor winter dress.

Teaching the Penguin warm-up activity.

The session started with the essentials – how do you keep students warm? Sarah and Carey led the teachers in the ‘penguin walk’ – stomping their feet with toes pointed out and swinging alternating arms, followed by other fun movement exercises designed to keep fingers and toes warm. It was easy to imagine a class of Kindergartners giggling in delight as they waddled back and forth like penguins!

The CREA team also modeled a rollicking, COVID-appropriate version of Fox and Hare (aka tag), involving a pool noodle for tagging, in which participants can only run along trails stamped in a circular grid in the snow. Great for getting warm and active!

Another activity was catching snowflakes on black felt, noticing their different shapes, and trying to match them to photos and drawings of different snowflake types on a laminated sheet.

For each activity, Sarah and Carey gave the materials to the teachers then modeled how they would ‘teach’ the lesson. There’s no better way to learn than hands-on, even outdoors in winter!

Modeling different animal track patterns.

For Animal Tracks Sarah and Carey gave out cards showing the four different types of animal tracks – walkers, bounders, waddlers, and hoppers. A thin layer of snow on the pavement created perfect conditions for mimicking the different track styles. Students have fun, are active, and get warm, oblivious to the fact that they’re developing gross motor strength and coordination and other key developmental skills.

Sarah noted that teachers don’t need to know what type of animal made a particular track. The goal is to encourage students to develop their observational skills and to think about what they see. Do you think the animal was running or walking? What size animal made the track? Can you tell where the animal was going or what it was doing from the tracks?

When a child asks, “What kind of animal made this track?” and the teacher answers, “A fox,” the conversation ends there. By encouraging close observation, teachers cultivate the skill of self-directed investigation and learning.

Touring the Enchanted Forest loop.

The group toured a recently cleared loop trail in the ‘Enchanted Forest’ adjacent to the KFS campus. This wooded area is owned by the town and is being used as an outdoor classroom by KFS’s teachers. Pre-K through 2 grade classes have built shelters, populated outdoor museums, and more in this grove of tall pine trees. The area is crisscrossed with animal tracks, offering endless opportunity for the Animal Tracks lesson.

Out in the woods, Carey described a craft/science activity in which students make a Snow Stick and use it to measure snow depth. They can measure snow depth in different locations, prompting discussion of why it might differ from place to place.

Carey demos a Snow Stick.

As the woods walk drew to a close, the CREA team left teachers with some key advice – don’t over-plan your time outdoors.  At best, plan for one activity and fully explore it, while weaving in short breaks for games or activity breaks to get warm. The woods offer endless visual and sensory stimulation, so allow plenty of opportunity for students to look, touch, hear, and get curious about the magical place they’re in!