Innovation Alley: Nature’s “Makerspace”: What’s the big idea?

Dr. Jon Mitzmacher

The genuine desire to “innovate” has led many schools to embrace new pedagogies and technologies. There is a growing recognition by schools of all types that in order to personalize, to better differentiate, to incorporate 21st century literacies, to increase choice and student ownership of learning, to add so-called “soft skills,” etc., it is necessary to provide students with cutting-edge experiences. Examples include STEM/STEAM, Robotics, Project-based Learning, Blended Online Learning and Makerspace, and we’ve dedicated our two prior columns to just these kinds of ideas.

However, it is critical to remember that innovation does not necessarily equal nor require technology. In fact, sometimes the most important innovations lead us out of the school building altogether. In the UK and Scandinavia, there are a growing number of schools that are looking to the forest, perhaps nature’s original Makerspace, to transform teaching and learning.

“Outdoor learning” as an educational philosophy goes all the way back to philosophers like Locke and Piaget and is connected to play-based learning, place-based learning, experiential learning, Montessori and environmental learning just to name a few. In order to facilitate cognitive development, develop self-confidence, increase social skills and build up intrinsic motivation to learn, students and teachers go outside and engage in a variety of outdoor learning activities. The outdoor space varies by topography, and the activities vary by season, age and interest. Outdoor learning activities are designed to be interdisciplinary and holistic. What might a school look like where the forest provides all the tools you need to achieve? Well, the aptly named Forest Schools is a great place to start.

Who’s doing it?

“It is the joy and exuberance that becomes so noticeable when children are playing in nature, becoming co-inhabitants of the space and totally integrated with the cycles, interrelationships and magic. It is the awe and wonder that connects, surprises and gives children that sparkle in their eyes. Without this connection, life can be very different, and I believe all the poorer,” says Sarah Blackwell, founder, CEO and chairman of Forest Schools.

Forest Schools are long-term programs—sometimes extracurricular, sometimes co-curricular and in even rarer cases, the curriculum—within a natural space, led by a qualified practitioner. They focus on developing personal, social and emotional life skills through learner-led, nature-based learning. Initially, projects run from their own grounds/gardens/playing fields (where appropriate), allowing the children to become comfortable with an outdoor approach to education and play while in familiar surroundings. The programs are run by Forest School leaders, who receive training and credential in their unique approach. Once a group is established in the woodland and routines are set up, the program develops through a child-led approach, with opportunities for projects to continue indoors. Forest Schools are just beginning to explore working with schools in the States and have recently opened two Forest Schools kindergartens.

How can I learn more?

Check out the vision for Forest Schools Kindergarten.

Read up on the research that supports Forest Schools’ philosophy and examines its efficacy.

Want to beta test a Forest Schools program in your school? Email them! They are interested.

What’s the charge?

Go outside!

I am not aware of Jewish day schools that have invested serious resources in outdoor learning experiences, but am happily corrected if mistaken. If you are one of those schools, or would like to be, Prizmah is interested in serving as a means to connect fellow travelers, facilitating conversation and linking to organizations in and outside the field of Jewish day schools.

Schools interested in “Innovation” are encouraged to continue the conversation across through Prizmah’s Reshet groups, including the dedicated Reshet Innovation.

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