Tell us about yourself.
As co-teachers of an Outdoor Kindergarten program in Muskoka, Ontario, environmental inquiry is at the core of what we do. Our small class of 16 students, known affectionately as “the K-Pals”, are three to six years old, but continually impress us with wisdom far beyond their years.
The understanding that the classroom is the third teacher could not be more applicable for our students. We are incredibly fortunate to have ample outdoor space to play in, explore, learn from, and protect. Regardless of the weather, our students spend almost three quarters of their day outside.
Our program is one of relationships. We believe, and have experienced first-hand, that it is through relationships that our students develop not only academic skills, but skills for life. Through relationships with peers of varying ages, they learn to care for one another and form a community of learners. Together with this community, they then learn to care for the Earth, thus developing their earliest relationship with the natural world as one of wonder, awe, and respect.
Given our environmentally fragile world, our program ensures that our students grow up among the natural world that they will, and are, working diligently to save. We view each day as an opportunity for our students to discover, build knowledge together, and wonder about the things that are most important to them in that moment. When the lake has disappeared under fog, our morning becomes an exploration of fog, where it comes from and where it is going. When a student asks about gravity and how the Earth spins, we look at books that may help us and lead to more questions. Our students guide our days; what we learn, what we play, what we do. With nature as our classroom and our students leading the way, we are left merely to support their learning by asking questions, providing resources, and facilitating discussions. Each day our students learn and grow among nature and each day they remind us to stay curious.
Branch I: Inquiry & Engagement/Lighting the Fire:
The spontaneous nature of childrens’ curiosity demands a flexible schedule with time for uninterrupted investigation. We have designed our schedule to accommodate this. These extended periods of outdoor play are full of discovery, learning, and wonder. Our first role is to observe.
Once we notice a recurring topic our role expands to facilitate learning and nurture curiosity. Broadly, this looks like intentional selection of outdoor play spaces and collection of books and materials that extend play and thinking, answer questions, and spark further questions. To exemplify this process, we will outline our rock inquiry.
Our students were fascinated by rocks and collected them constantly. We explored boulders, sand, smooth river rocks, and more. Books led to questions like, “Can you tell how old a rock is?”. They examined gems and polished rocks with toothbrushes and soap, comparing wet and dry. We interviewed other teachers about special rocks they brought from home. We borrowed an electric rock polisher and collected stones we thought would make beautiful gems.
When questions arise, our students answer them. Our role is to engage them in discussion to determine what they already know, what they want to know, and how we are going to figure it out.
For example, when the question “What is inside of a rock?” was asked, the students were eager to share their ideas (e.g. fire) and even more eager to investigate. Using chisels, they broke open rocks they were curious about.
As an investigation concludes, our role is to facilitate the sharing of student learning. After walking through our Cracked Rock Museum, we met in a circle to reflect on what we had learned about what is inside of a rock. We found beauty in the fact that we didn’t have one answer. It helped our students to understand that ideas are improvable; we are always learning.
We do not aim to determine exactly what our students will learn when we start an inquiry. For us, getting students engaged, curious and passionate through the process of learning is the most important reason to incorporate inquiry-based learning into our practice.
Branch II: Experiential Learning/Sending Out Roots:
Through daily, uninterrupted outdoor play, our students form deep connections with nature and reap the learning that comes with these connections. In our practice, time is an essential component of how we create opportunity for experiential learning. Without time to explore, connect, and play without adult interference or direction, our students wouldn’t learn how to see nature in a way that is meaningful to them. Two fundamental ideas that contribute to our students’ ability to explore freely in nature are risky play and mutual respect. By labeling and discussing different types of play, our students learn to balance their own comfort levels, the abilities of those around them, and a respect for their peers and the natural world.
With time, risky play, and mutual respect, our students develop a deep connection with the land that leads to long-lasting learning. For example, this year through their play, our students were entranced by the formation of ice and carefully observed where and how ice was forming.
This careful observation of puddles and ponds extended to the lake and we used this as an opportunity for the students to reflect on their learning. Over several weeks we observed the lake as it began to freeze and the students would draw what they noticed and we would label their observations. Soon, our students began noticing that smaller puddles were frozen while bigger puddles weren’t. We took this as an opportunity to frame their learning within the framework of scientific experiments. To confirm their theory about smaller puddles freezing before bigger puddles, the students thought to use two different sized bowls and monitor their progress in the freezer. After reflecting on the experiment as a class, students were able to take the learning from both the puddles outdoors and their experiment and apply it to their understanding of how the lake might freeze: from the edges inward.
Through this process of developing natural connections through play, careful observation of the world around them, and practical experimentation of how things happen, our students develop practical knowledge with which to understand the world around them.
Branch III: Integrated Learning/The Flow of Knowledge:
The flexibility of our practice allows our students to immerse themselves in their environmental inquiry topic. We adapt our schedule so connections can be made across all subjects and we can draw on the knowledge and abilities of our community and students to deepen their understanding. As they learn and explore, our students view it as their duty to care for the Earth.
We will exemplify how we integrate many types of learning into our environmental inquiries through the example of a plant inquiry our class began exploring before the pandemic.
Using prior knowledge, our students designed an experiment to test where seeds would grow best in winter by selecting different locations in and around our school. This led the students to wonder about our compost and begin their own “compost” bin in our classroom. As discussions arose about types of waste, a parent shared her knowledge of vermicompost and provided us with materials to start our own. From here, our student experts were given opportunities to share about their plants from home in knowledge building discourse. One student, for example, was a “pepper expert” and the class interviewed him about how best to grow peppers.
As the subject matter expanded, so too did the opportunities for cross-curricular learning. We made predictions, graphed our favourite colour of pepper, drew and labelled the root systems of our plants, and filled out “seed order forms” for the types of food we wanted to plant in our school garden.
As we explored these topics, we considered different perspectives. Our students and their families each came with different ideas about the process of growing their own food. We had also planned, pre-pandemic, to explore the Indigenous method of planting the Three Sisters, how this knowledge came to be known, and how it exemplifies reciprocal relationships with the Earth.
Integrated learning is pervasive in our students’ play and inquiries. Our role is to identify the concepts they are exploring and make the learning explicit, while seeking opportunities in the world and our community for our students to make further connections and deepen their understanding.
Branch IV: Moving Towards Sustainability/Breathing with the World:
As educators of young children, we focus on the development of respectful relationships with the natural world as our students experience the beauty and complexity of nature. The time and freedom they have to explore and connect with the land ensures that, from an early age, the relationship they develop is one of joy and wonder. This connection gives them concrete experience with the very elements humanity is attempting to maintain and restore. It is then within this personal context that they learn about sustainable practices and restorative action. They understand on a deep level the wonders of the world, and thus, the necessity to preserve it. They view themselves as part of the natural world; it is their friend, their play space, their classroom.
Each spring, our school makes maple syrup and this process exemplifies the approach we take in modeling a reciprocal relationship between people and land. Through discussion, our students learn the importance of tapping only the trees that can stand to lose some of their precious sap. Thus, our students learn to identify signs of illness and connect this with the importance of preservation. By encouraging questions, we emphasize the importance of questioning why we do things. For example, our students saw the previous year’s tap hole and wondered, “Does this scar hurt the tree?”. This allowed us to discuss a question that doesn’t have an easy answer, modeling the need for thoughtful discourse.
Had we returned after March Break, we would have continued this modeling through sap collection. The students learn not to waste the tree’s sap, illustrating the importance of taking only what we need. Finally, when they get a small jar of syrup, they are able to connect it to the natural world and the complex process it took to make it.
Throughout our practice, we model respectful relationships with the Earth and our students practice as they learn and play among the wilderness. The connection they form with nature cannot be lost; their earliest memories and lessons are ones that place them as an essential and responsible part of the natural world.
The Four Branches of Natural Curiosity in action…
Throughout our year, these branches have grown with our students, supporting their developmental needs and deepening their learning when they were ready to climb to the next branch. The examples provided demonstrate how the branches guided our students as the year progressed. When viewed together, we hope to illustrate the important role environmental inquiry plays in our practice.
Starting the school year can be overwhelming for children, so we encourage our students to find their place by exploring the natural world around them and to wonder freely about what they discover. This first branch of inquiry and engagement is evidenced by their rock collections, sparking our first inquiry of the year. As their connection with the land strengthened through their relationship with rocks, the way they engaged with the Earth changed. They observed more carefully and they spent more time exploring particular elements of their environment. Branch II was illustrated as our students’ desire to learn about how and why ice forms. Their thinking developed further still as they discovered how to learn through observation of the world around them, and as they practiced experimenting and testing their theories. They demonstrated integration of learning during their plant exploration as they considered different perspectives on growing and made connections between seeds, roots, soil, and more. Finally, the maple syrup process pushed our students to consider sustainability. They took the connections they made and applied them to a project in a way that demonstrated respect and caring for the Earth.
This progression in our students’ development reflects our teaching philosophy, with the child at the centre. We meet our students where they are and provide them with the time, freedom, and resources to discover their love of learning. The natural world is full of never-ending wonders, just as children are full of never-ending curiosity. Through the framework of environmental inquiry, our main goal is for our students to discover a joy of learning. We want them to learn about their world, how and why things work, about the responsibility they have to the world, and about themselves through this process.