Taking to the Outdoors
Harris Center School Program Director Janet Altobello writes about the More Time Outside Professional Learning Community (PLC) that she facilitates:
One of my most fulfilling Harris Center projects is supporting elementary school teachers who have dreamed of spending more time outside with their classes. These wise teachers are masterful at creating community and routines that honor children’s energy and curiosity inside their classrooms. My job is to build their capacity to step out the door, into the fresh air and wild edges of their schoolyards for joyful, productive learning in and about nearby nature.
Here are the voices of three teachers who have participated in the Harris Center’s “More Time Outside” Professional Learning Community since 2018. We meet monthly, after school and on an occasional Saturday, to share our successes and challenges and to experience the role of the learner and the teacher outside. Leslie Hodgen teaches kindergarten at Greenfield Elementary School, Lauren Mann teaches kindergarten through 2nd grade in Francestown, and Mary Donovan is a 1st grade teacher in Antrim.
Leslie recalls her experience of being outside as a child:
“It was normal to always be outside playing as children in all our free time unless it was raining. I followed my older siblings out the door to play. We were kicked out of the house!”
Leslie’s first association with the Harris Center was sending her children to February Vacation Camp, followed by Wol’s Nest in the summer. She became an aide in Greenfield’s preschool program, where she met “Miss Jaime.” There she observed the Harris Center’s Jaime Hutchinson skillfully leading nature-based experiences with young children.
Now as a kindergarten teacher, with the support of the More Time Outside PLC, Leslie is providing her class with more time for self-directed outdoor play. She hopes her students will be inspired to increase outdoor play time at home — moving easily, using their bodies, climbing trees — and spend less time with electronic screens. At school, she loves to hear them talk about their woods work and make new plans for outdoor play, even when they’re back inside.
“I notice how being outside with them calms me down . . . fresh air and sunshine. I realize that I can do this! A little risk taking is okay. The children recognize our time outside as high value. We have class conversations about trust. They know I need to trust them, and they see that they can trust me to meet their needs. My partnership with the Harris Center has given me confidence to spend more time of the school day outside. Connecting kids with nearby nature is exactly what is needed. I dream of spending a whole day outside together.”
Lauren Mann also recalls a childhood spent outside:
“There was no other choice!”
At Francestown Elementary School (FES), and before that in Peterborough, Lauren established a monthly all-school Nature Workshop Day. At FES they have built a fire pit as a gathering area and set up a tent with a portable toilet and hand washing station (with warm water!). Multi-age groups of children and adults rove through a series of stations and share an opening and closing circle with the whole school.
“At the end of the year when children reflect, their favorite school day memories are OUTSIDE! It mattered to them! Even eating their snack outside is a special memory!”
When Lauren reflects on the support she receives from our PLC, she says,
“The Harris Center brings expertise that class teachers don’t have. It is daunting for teachers to take kids out to the unknown, without four walls. I try things that are new to me . . . you come and show me how to interact with my school landscape . . . I like meeting once a month so I have time to try things and get ongoing support.”
As a child, Mary Donovan spent most weekends on her grandparents’ farm in Marlborough. Watching the moon rise above the fields; riding in a wagon to collect maple sap; noticing the quiet and the fragrance of pine needles made a deep impression on her.
Mary remembers teaching 1st grade at Hancock Elementary School, where the Harris Center’s Susie Spikol modeled how to bring children outside to learn about chipmunks. When Mary began teaching in Antrim, there were years when the whole school explored McCabe Forest through the seasons.
Today, Mary encourages her 1st graders to open their senses to the textures, colors, and stories in the woods behind Antrim Elementary School. Her beautiful nature journal entries inspire her students to slow down and look closely.
“I hope children develop fascination and drive to be outside. It’s a relaxed place to be, for all of us. I see kids shine outside who struggle inside. It is so satisfying to see how curiosity pours out afterwards for things like writing and poetry.”
Like Leslie and Lauren, Mary will continue participating in our More Time Outside group. Mary shares,
“Being in this professional learning community has validated my excitement about science. I’ve gone into greater depth with a topic as a result of our partnership. It’s great for the kids to know that their teachers have naturalist friends at the Harris Center. And it’s so good for kids’ imaginations that there are grown-ups who love nature.”
For more information on the Harris Center’s 50th anniversary celebrations, please contact Lisa Murray at (603) 525-3394 or by email.