Taking the classroom into the wild

Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on March 11, 2017.

Mother nature welcomed Terry Hughes’ kindergarten class outside with a forceful gust of wind through the trees.

The kids shrieked, laughed, ran around one another and dropped to the pavement – clipboards and pencils in hand.

“Outside sounds: WIND,” they wrote, in small letters and big, some jumbling up the word the way kindergartners sometimes will.

Minutes later, one student kicked a rock across the blacktop.

“Rock!!” they screamed, running toward the sound and making note of the latest discovery.

Student Hanna Wermecke picked up a piece of chalk and drew on the pavement.

“You can hear that!” a 6-year-old exclaimed.

Soon they had a full list of outdoor sounds: sand, leaves, sticks and trees – there were more than they could count.

It was all part of a recent class at Hill-Roberts Elementary School in South Attleboro, where Hughes focuses on hands-on, experimental learning.

Attleboro has recently shifted toward an emphasis on science, but district administrators say Hughes takes the lessons even further by giving her students – a rambunctious 24-member class of 5- and 6-year-olds – a first-hand look at everything they learn about.

But from her perspective, Hughes is just letting her kids do what they do best: be kids.

“Kids have great questions normally,” she said. “They’re very curious. So when we do science in kindergarten, we’re encouraging them to get excited and be inquisitive. We’re making them want to learn.”

Thursday’s focus was on sounds, and started with a nature walk through the woods where students were able to let loose and freely explore the world around them.

They learned words for different sounds – rustling, crunching, snapping. And, though it was a chance to stop and listen, kindergartners rarely stop. Instead they dove into everything in front of them.

They found uprooted trees and decided animals might live inside, thought maybe a pond of water could be a volcano and realized bugs had eaten a hole in a piece of bark.

They made note of things they did (a tree stump throne) and did not like (goose poops) and called for “Mrs. Hughes!!” whenever something piqued their interest.

Their imagination is limitless – and Hughes lets them dream, but also takes advantage of simple moments to encourage their inquisitive thinking while giving her students the confidence to answer questions on their own.

When a group of students jumped into a ditch of leaves, exclaiming, “It’s squishy!” Hughes responded with only a question: “Why do you think it’s squishy?”

“It helps them think for themselves and think outside of the box,” she said. “If you tell them the answer, the question stops there. If they’re the ones engaged in finding out the answers themselves, they’ll think about it longer.

“They’ll make more connections out of that connection and it helps with their long-term memory. If we can hook them into learning now, think of the potential they’ll have in the longrun.”

She finds opportunities for outside learning everywhere she looks. When teaching the kids about animals and how they hide in the forest, Hughes gave each of the kids paint chips and asked them to find a place in nature to camouflage the cards.

“They were surprised to find weird shades of green existed outside,” she said.

To learn about the seasons, they watch the trees outside the school change yearround.

“If they can see that individually, it’s an ‘Aha!’ moment where they can say, ‘Now I understand what you mean by that,'” she said.

“They’re checking it out, making predictions, observing what they see and hear, following up on those predictions and bringing it home to share. That’s the beauty of it.”

And Hughes uses the outside learning experiences to build upon more practical classroom assignments inside.

Thursday afternoon, students were tasked with writing stories based off of the sounds they heard earlier in the day.

“It’s a jumping off point to get them excited for the rest of the day,” she said.

The concept of outside classrooms is big in Scandinavian countries. and has started to cross over to the States, but Hughes’ outdoor education stretches back over her 36-year career.

“When I first started teaching, we had to make our own curriculum. I use a lot of the things now that I used back then,” she said.

Now, with many more state requirements, curriculum is much less “design-it-yourself,” but Hughes said the experimental learning shouldn’t have to stop.

“It’s always a challenge, given the schedules we have for what we need to do,” she said. “There’s no fluff in our day, anymore.

“Kids are going home exhausted and we’re challenging them and holding them to higher standards. That expectation is coming down on them even in kindergarten. But, I try to make it a priority and connect back to it as much as I can.”

Tami LeFleur was hired last year as the district’s K-12 STEM coordinator, and said she was shocked to see Hughes’ classroom flourishing at such a young age. She said Hughes could be a model for other teachers across the district to incorporate more doing in their classrooms.

“Science is all about engaging kids, but it doesn’t start in high school,” she said. “It starts the day they walk through these doors. It’s not necessarily about memorizing facts, it’s how do you go about investigating something?”

Hughes’ students could tell you.

Kelli Larson, 5 1/2, has seen worms, caterpillars, butterflies and bluebirds – all up close – and now knows how to find them at home.

“Our whole class loves science,” her friend Allyson Klegraefe, 5, said matter-of-factly.

And in his first year with the school, Principal Frank Rich said he draws inspiration from Hughes’ class.

“It’s been nice learning more about what she does,” he said. “She’s one teacher that has really bought into the learning priority of real-life experiences. This is the age where you should build on that, and we have a great campus for it.”

“I want them to have fun every day,” Hughes said. “You don’t want to rush them through their childhood at 5 or 6 years old. I want them to enjoy school.”

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