Learning in open spaces, learning outdoors at Agora International School Madrid
2020 has tested our resilience and forced the world to change the way we live, study and work in the blink of an eye.
One of the great frustrations of 2020 had to do with education: classes were abruptly interrupted, and students of all ages had to stay home and finish the course remotely. Teachers rolled up their sleeves to master video and streaming tools, many of them, designed for adults in business settings. In September, we faced the great challenge of opening the doors while preserving the safety of our students.
Open spaces were positioned as a safe value against the coronavirus, and at Agora International School Madrid we have known this for years. Before the pandemic, our 4-year-old students went out to the garden to look for bugs, and the boys and girls of 2nd and 3rd grade of Primary enjoyed the individual reading outdoors. Leaving the classroom empty twice a week was and is a perfect excuse to experiment, touch, get excited … Is it necessary to touch to learn? Everything points to yes.
The teacher, Doctor of Medicine and Neuroscience, Francisco Mora affirms that “the essence and efficiency of learning and memory that modifies the brain resides in that brain energy that we call emotion.” In his lectures, articles and books, he focuses on the functioning of the brain, on how we learn, and the influence emotions have on the process that he himself calls “nothing can be learned more than what one loves.” What ignites learning is emotion and, in it, curiosity, and then attention. The latter, so necessary for learning, cannot be aroused simply by demanding it, just like curiosity. You must evoke them from within the learner, and of course, from within the teacher.
An open-air school
Are there more attentive children than those who paint outdoors, or review learned vocabulary while doing a treasure hunt? Proof of this are our infant students who bring out their creative vein while their bodies absorb a good dose of vitamin D.
These activities may seem merely playful, but the truth is that a math class can be taught outside of the classroom, as 5-year-old students experience through the Numicon method.
As Paula Flores Gancedo, Infant Coordinator of the school, saidl: “We consider that learning outdoors provides the opportunity for children to develop their experiences, creativity and imagination through nature. In Infant Education, learning outdoors is very attractive since we work a lot on the sensory and experimental part without neglecting the cognitive part. We believe that by putting all this together we get students to develop their capacities to the maximum and, above all, to feel the freedom to learn in open spaces and with everyday elements that surround us”.
Why not teaching anatomy by allowing students to draw their silhouettes on the playground floor? Don’t you think it will be easier to understand the rotation of the Earth if we observe the movement of the Sun and the shadows it generates? This is what we have done with our 2nd grade students. You can also teach language classes sitting on the grass sunbathing, develop an interdisciplinary research project on the evolution of the human being to orient oneself in space and time, in addition to the traditional sport activities, gardening, arts and crafts, collecting waste, without forgetting individual reading, the dramatization of a musical piece, direct observation of the environment to write a text, the study of the vegetation in a corner of the playground throughout the seasons of the year, the construction of a sundial, the large-scale reproduction of a work of art, like our 3rd grade Primary students.
Such are the possibilities of learning outside the classroom that in 2012, a couple of schools in London celebrated Outdoor Classroom Day as part of a campaign founded by the EcoSchools coordinator, Anna Portch, an expert in sustainability, and in tracking creative ideas to involve people in preserving the planet. The initiative is currently being supported by more than 10 million children around the world. Our school joined in 2019, following the mission that we have in the DNA of Agora International School Madrid to prepare each of our students to become a global citizen who can change the world.
Benefits of learning outdoors
As referred above, there are increasingly strong evidence that leaving the classroom to observe, internalize and understand strengthens health and well-being, and allows a cognitive development that directly affects the behaviors and emotions of the human being. However, there are also many other benefits of this “simple” fact. Let’s list them:
- Improve learning. Teaching in nature enhances the predisposition of the cognitive learning process and the integral formation of children, making it manipulative, plural and interdisciplinary, according to the words of Pete Higgins, prominent professor of Education in Nature and Environmental Education at the Moray House School of Education from the University of Edinburgh.
- It positively affects the physical, social, interpersonal and aesthetic development of the child. Changing spaces activates the brain and being outdoors helps children focus on the activity proposed by the teacher.
- It relieves the symptoms of students with ADHD and ADD. Using different ways of teaching makes it easier for students in general, and especially those with ADHD, will pay more attention.
- It improves social skills, teamwork and helps students from other countries who are learning the language to acquire new vocabulary. Leaving the routine fosters new relationships, other conversations, facilitating the use of new words, expressions, doubts … thus expanding horizons between classmates.
- It improves children’s health by receiving a portion of vitamin D that generates dopamine, necessary to grow up properly.
- It facilitates problem solving. In the words of Judith Hackitt, former president of the British Health and Safety Executive Institution: ” Play outdoors teaches young people how to deal with risk and without this they are ill equipped to deal with working life.”
In nature, one learns to observe, to develop critical, systemic, and creative thinking. The proof of it is the result of our school garden.
Getting out of the classroom is fun. “It is an excellent way for children to have fun while learning and enjoying their surroundings”, explains Rocio Lisbona, Agora International School Madrid.
Education in, for and from nature, far from being a fad (it has been practiced since the time of Aristotle), is a firm trend. In the words of María Montessori, “there is no description or image in any book that is capable of replacing the vision of real trees and all the life that revolves around them. Nature gives us knowledge that no book and no museum can ever give us (…)”