Cedar Springs — Sometimes, the books get wet. Sometimes, a lesson is interrupted by a visit from chickens that live nearby. Sometimes, it’s too cold to use dry-erase markers.
In Audrey Debri’s Young Fives class at Cedar Trails, you can expect the unexpected. Except for one thing: Class will always be held outside.
“Anything that can be taught indoors can also be taught outdoors,” said Debri. “You just have to be creative and think outside the box! And with young fives, a lot of them have never been in school before, so they don’t know any different. This is school to them — just being out here.”
Debri’s students spend about 80% of every school day in the Cedar Trails Outdoor Classroom, located in a wooded parcel of land adjacent to the school building. The main “classroom” is situated under tall pines and sheltered from most of the elements, with benches, tables and a whiteboard for more formal instruction. Nearby is a space called “The Meadow,” which contains a weaving station, art easel, wooden kitchen appliances and a magnet board for various hands-on learning and play opportunities.
“The wind plays a big role in what we can do on certain days and the snow dictated a lot of what we could do outside this winter, but the kids were learning no matter what we did,” said Debri. “We couldn’t bring out paper for painting in the winter, but we could still paint in the snow. We couldn’t bring out our whiteboards and dry-erase markers because they would freeze on the really cold days, but we could still bring out clipboards, paper and pencils. We could also write and draw with sticks in the snow.”
The pandemic has certainly elevated the idea of outdoor education, but this is a project Debri dreamed of well before coronavirus was a thing. She often took students out to the campus nature trail for some lessons, and in 2019 approached Cedar Springs administrators with the idea of creating a permanent outdoor classroom.
With their support, Debri created the space with help from her husband, Tom, who built all of the wooden elements of the classroom. He also constructed small footbridges over low-lying areas along the path to the classroom.
‘Anything that can be taught indoors can also be taught outdoors. You just have to be creative and think outside the box!’— Audrey Debri, Young Fives teacher
The outdoor classroom made its debut in the fall of 2019, and Cedar Trails has committed to the idea of the young fives being outside for years to come. The Cedar Springs Education Foundation granted the program funding for warm, waterproof mittens and boots for any child to use, and parents have donated snow pants, rain boots and other supplies that Debri can keep for future years.
“We’ve had a lot of conversations this year, like, ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, we just have to make sure that we’re dressed for the weather,’” said Debri. “There was only one day this year that it was below zero and we had to stay in – the rest of the time we’ve been able to be outside. (The kids are) coming to school prepared, and if they don’t have something, I have extra supplies that they can borrow. Really, every season has an opportunity to do stuff outside, so we’re out every day!”
Embracing Rain and Everything Else
Adapting lessons to the outdoors has been a fun exercise in creative thinking, Debri said. Right now in math class, the kids are learning shapes, so they are challenged to find or create shapes using what they can find in the woods.
In science, they’ll talk about the milkweed pods someone picks up along the trail, or bring out bug jars with magnifying lenses to study insects. On rainy days, they go exploring and measure the depth of puddles. On muddy days, they’ll portion out mud “ingredients” and pretend to make food in the mud kitchen.
Of course, not every day is idyllic. Debri described one morning of “torrential downpours” that had her second-guessing this always-outside plan. As she was asking her teaching partner what to do, that teacher told Debri to turn around and look at the kids.
“They were all getting on their rain boots and coats and ponchos, and she said, ‘It looks like you’re going outside!’” Debri recalled.
“They expected that we would go outside, because that’s where class is, and they knew that it was raining so they had to prepare for the weather. So we did it – we went outside in the downpour. They were excited about it, honestly – at this age, they embrace it.”
That youthful enthusiasm and curiosity makes a young fives class the perfect audience for outdoor education, Debri said. Being outside offers the ability to experience new things and to create learning opportunities out of the unexpected.
“They’re learning so many different words that they’ve never heard before, and feeling different things and smelling different things,” she said. “They’re really getting experiences that help them comprehend things better and communicate with each other better. It just meshes all the subject areas together so nicely.
“All kids like to explore and be creative. They’re in their element out here, when they’re able to use their imaginations and make games and cook and explore with each other.”