Lake Forest Country Day School is a Little Lake County partner, this story is part of the partnership.
It’s a beautiful brisk fall day. A bit windy, the grass wet and muddy from the previous day’s rain and I am surrounded by children.
Two girls are playing with a tire, standing it up and rolling it back and forth.
There’s a group of children in a thicket looking at a bug book and tossing helicopter seeds in the air.
A group of boys is peeling the bark off an old log.
There’s an imaginative group of children who tiptoe up to a thicket and and runaway screaming because there is a hyena coming (imaginary of course).
And several children are in trees.
Nope, this is not the latest playground, it’s a preschool! The preschool program at Lake Forest Country Day School allows for three-year-olds to not only enjoy a regular recess, but they also spend almost half of their day outside. Children spend an hour or more of their half-day program (extended hours available) exploring and learning in their expansive outdoor classroom.
The goal of the outdoor classroom was really to help children develop across all areas of development. Early childhood is a time of such rapid development, and Lake Forest Country Day School knows the impact and the importance of allowing children free-play and time outside helps them develop across the board — from cognitively to socially, and of course, physically. Lead teacher Jen Baurer said that they see children not only being more comfortable with nature but also more willing to take risks and to work together. Some parents event report fewer sick days because of how much time the children are spending outside. The biggest benefit is the joy I saw fully in play during my visit. The children sprint from the door to their favorite spots and are constantly on the move to explore, climb, and just joyfully be kids. I observed no sulking, no hanging back and no tears.
The outdoor classroom features a mud kitchen, logs, hills and a bridge, as well as off-trail space. I visited with children playing in a bramble-filled area, exploring under leaves. I also peeked in on a group of children in a sheltered space between some large grown evergreens. Some were climbing trees, other were digging, others were chasing (imaginary) hyenas — the creativity and imagination was freely flowing throughout this space.
Teacher Erin Jantsch explains that allowing the children access to this off-trail space allows them to learn, grow and develop outside of themselves. They need to learn how to navigate the bramble, and determine which way to move and how to get in and out of the area. It also opens up a whole curriculum of bugs and nature as they explore under the leaves in and and around the stumps.
This is the only time I’ve ever visited a venue and was told, “I wish you were here yesterday when it was raining!” The outdoor classroom is utilized daily, rain or shine, and rainy days are one of the best days for learning! All students have access to boots and full coveralls, as well as clear umbrellas, so they can see and explore — even in the rain. Teacher Laura Matuszewski says puddle jumping is the children’s favorite rainy day activity as well as digging in the mud.
The entire time the children are outside they engage in unstructured, open play. Laura explained that they give them many invitations to play using the logs and boxes, and the balls and hoops, but how they play is entirely up to the children themselves. The teachers rotate what artifacts are available to the children just as a teacher would rotate toys or stations in a traditional classroom. When I was there, children had hoops and cardboard boxes as well as natural items like the logs and mud. Some children even brought books outside with them and enjoyed sitting on a blanket and reading in the sun.
Take a brief look at my morning at LFCDS Preschool to see just how the outdoor classroom runs:
Lake Forest Country Day School is a co-educational independent school for students age two through eigth grade. They have been graduating students of strong character with a passion for learning since 1888. Contact them today to set up a tour and visit or visit on one their upcoming open houses: February 6 and March 3.
Disclosure: Lake Forest Country Day School is paid advertising partner of Little Lake County, all thoughts and opinions are the writers own. If you are interested in having your business featured please contact us.