EVERETT — Our Savior’s Lutheran Church and Preschool has come up with a fresh way to teach children. And it’s spreading to the congregation.
Our Savior’s showcased its new outdoor classroom and nature park at a 30-year anniversary celebration last month. It turned a previously overgrown plot next to the church into an outdoor area that boasts a treehouse platform, a garden, a fire pit and structures for imaginative play.
One group of preschoolers had class in the space during the past school year. Rain or shine, the children went outside.
“We don’t baby them out there,” Preschool Director Debbie Cooper said. “We believe there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes.”
If the preschoolers get cold, they are allowed to build a fire and construct a shelter using tarps over the wooden structures in the park. That teaches critical thinking, problem solving and safety early on, Cooper said.
“They use good old common sense,” she said.
The preschoolers cook their own meals over the open fire. They chop kindling to fuel it.
“They’re using real tools out there,” Cooper said. “These kids work hard. They know this is their outdoor sanctuary.”
Students are also tending a garden. They teamed with parents to build the garden boxes and plant kale, beans, peas, berries, garlic and other edibles.
“The kids see how food is made,” said Elizabeth DeRoche, the outdoor teacher. “These are lifelong skills they’re learning.”
The students keep the park clean by picking up litter. They shovel dirt and bark, moving it in small wheelbarrows to make improvements.
Staff has noticed the outdoor children seem to have more energy than students who attend preschool in the 13 indoor classes. They’ve also had fewer behavioral problems, Cooper said.
“When you’re outdoors, no matter what, you’re out there with happy attitudes,” she said.
The students who have had trouble in a traditional classroom, Cooper said, seem to excel outdoors.
The students had fewer absences due to illness than their indoor counterparts last year. They’ve also toughened up. Cooper said there’s far less drama surrounding incidents, such as falling down.
The fresh air and open space has also allowed the preschoolers to learn in a different way. They are able to study colors, plants and animals from the physical world rather than in books.
“Being a Christian school, we really teach our students about God’s creations,” Cooper said.
The preschoolers have a newfound respect for nature and property, she said. After vandals damaged the park on a few different occasions, the students cleaned and repaired it.
“They’re learning compassion, not just for themselves but for things,” Cooper said. “These kids are becoming good stewards of the Earth.”
The students have to be resourceful to play, learn or do activities in the natural environment.
“They use their imaginations more,” Cooper said.
They learned about shapes in math class by building a house out of sticks. For art, they used mud to complete their project.
Parents are learning too. Cooper said many are picking up students with a change of clothes and a gallon bucket for cleanup before the ride home.
They’re also reporting their children are sharing facts about nature.
“Parents are saying, ‘Wow, I never knew that,’” Cooper said. “Kids are like sponges, they absorb all of it.”
The natural setting also offers a unique setting for the children to experience faith.
“They’re free to learn about God out there,” DeRoche said.
She previously taught at Everett Community College. There, she had to keep her religious beliefs out of the classroom.
“If you take God out of the equation, you miss a lot,” DeRoche said.
Outside, the children are learning to accept each other as they are.
“It’s teaching God’s love,” Cooper said. “Children get it. If only we could keep that energy and faith as they grow.”
Older people in the congregation are catching on. Cooper said the nature-based learning has broadened the horizon for the entire church.
Our Savior’s is now offering some outdoor worship services and events. Cooper said she feels closer to her higher power when surrounded by the beauty of nature.
“It’s God’s perspective. We are the caretakers of the Earth,” she said. “If everybody thought that way, we’d have a better world.”
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org.