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The Best Classroom for New Readers Might Be the Great Outdoors

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

May 20, 2015
“Children are growing systems, and need to have feet grounded in the earth to develop the brain,” says the co-founder of an outdoorsy pre-kindegarten program. Image via Flickr user Ilianna López.

Last year, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that today’s kids are more sedentary than ever before. These overbooked digital natives spend up to 10 hours a day in front of some type of screen, shuttled from home to school to extracurricular activity, with scarce opportunity to explore the natural world. But playing in nature, it turns out, is critical to a child’s learning process, especially when it comes to developing reading and writing skills.

Fortunately, some schools and educational programs are taking this important nature-learning connection to heart. Sarojani Rohan, co-founder of the pre-K program at Mount Madonna School, puts it this way: “We understand that children are growing systems themselves, and need to be surrounded by green, growing things, need to have feet grounded in the earth to develop the brain and connect all the systems.” 

Mount Madonna School is perfectly situated to incorporate the natural world into its instruction, perched as it is high up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, surrounded by the oak woodlands of Mount Madonna State Park. “When we start teaching reading, we want children to bridge the inside world and the outside world,” says Rohan. “An important part of literacy is naming things. [Words] are an abstract representation that adults take for granted. Literacy is a process.”

Children must learn that abstractions add up to meaning. Rohan’s program teaches preschoolers to “read” the world around them. “I take them out on the mountain and we learn the difference between raccoon tracks, turkey tracks, and dog tracks. We read the clouds—what does it mean when the clouds are moving fast? We read the landscape. I’m expanding the idea of what literacy is; nature is concrete, real, and right in front of them.”

Next, when the children are ready to begin writing their own names, her students are asked to pick a word a day that is important to them. “Anything they choose,” says Rohan. “A food they like, a favorite animal, a person. Then we write that, they trace it, and practice reading it. The idea that the words are theirs is a huge step in them owning their own learning.”

TimberNook nature camps, billed as “the ultimate sensory experience” for children, builds on this owned-learning approach by taking a look at what the whole body is doing when picking up new skills. As TimberNook founder Angela Hanscom has said, “Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention.”

Hanscom comes from the world of occupational therapy, and originally developed TimberNook as an extension of that practice. So by tasking kids with exploring their worlds visually, she organically helps them exercise their vestibular systems, which she says “support all six eye muscles. A child might have fine visual acuity, but their eye muscles might not be working together, so they have trouble reading or scanning.”

TimberNook’s whole-body approach to learning “immerses children in a bunch of different senses at once, which nature provides,” says Hanscom. “Wind in your face, sun beating down on you, birds tweeting all around you—this helps with spatial awareness,” along with many other crucial learning skills, she adds.

Richard Louv, author of The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorderwrites frequently of the relationship between nature and learning, and suggests that the kind of independent exploration that occurs in nature is invaluable. “One of my students told me that every time she learns the name of a plant, she feels as if she is meeting someone new,” writes Louv. “Giving a name to something is a way of knowing it.” 

Literacy is more than simply rote memorization, after all. “As the brain develops with real-life experiences, then you can come into a classroom and tell stories, which engages the child’s inner picturing. This is critical to reading later on,” Rohan says.

Louv writes, “Reading stimulates the ecology of the imagination… Nature may be the key to getting kids to develop a love of reading that will last.” Rohan puts it a bit more simply: “When in doubt, go outside, is what Louv would say.” 

We think words mean power, and so should you. Through Project Literacy, GOOD and Pearson are building partnerships for a more literate future. Follow the #ProjectLiteracy hashtag and visit good.is or projectliteracy.com to tell us your stories, help us ask the right questions, and take action in your community.

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The Best Classroom for New Readers Might Be the Great Outdoors