This year has been difficult for teachers and school systems. We have all been tossed into something new and uncomfortable in many ways. I have the privilege of working in a small, independent school that honors the needs of children, and have had the opportunity to rethink my teaching in interesting ways. Leading a group of first graders is always a wonderful challenge, and this year it takes on new meaning as I work to balance the reality of a global pandemic with the needs for joy and creativity to be a part of daily classroom living. The school where I work and the community I am a part of has always embraced the outdoors as a place to seek peace, wonder, and inspiration. This year gave us more of a push to head outdoors; this year, the six- and seven-year-old students and I are outdoors all day.
Being outdoors has been a gift for our group. We all know children need to be outdoors as much as possible. Increased physical activity, connection with science and mathematics through hands-on exploration, and personal development through discovery of strengths are a few major benefits. I have always intuitively known this throughout my 13 years of teaching, and this year I have the pleasure of living it. Each day I gear up for the weather and head into the woods with my sweet group. We play and learn together and are growing in our understanding of the natural world and our place in it.
We have shared so many moments together this year that have been the kind of experiences we will never forget. Many of them were spontaneous and brought to us through natural observation. These moments have been beautiful distractions. There was a time in the fall when we noticed a monarch caterpillar emerging from its chrysalis. Right there, in front of our eyes, we watched a butterfly emerge through its final transformation. It was breathtaking and wondrous and all of those superlative words we use to describe such an experience. One of the students remarked, “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life.” I agreed. It was one of those moments we will collectively remember forever.
When we are outside talking about letters and numbers, wondering about how sounds connect to create worlds, we always stop what we are doing when we hear the call of the red-tailed hawk. There are a few that frequent our space and we love to watch them soar and wonder what they have been up to. Where are they going? Are they hunting? Where did they come from? We are also surrounded by other native New England birds — blue jays, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, goldfinches — and stop to observe them.
These beautiful distractions are a welcome opportunity to think about something different, learn about the beauty of the natural world, and learn about what distractions are and how they can expand creativity. The ability to move in and out of distractions is also translating into flexibility within student work. We are coming to see other pieces of our day as beautiful, where we once might have been apprehensive: beautiful mistakes, beautiful accidents, beautiful disagreements. We are learning that the things in our life that were not a part of our original design or plan can become a beautiful part of our lives and we can learn to move in and out of them with confidence. These beautiful distractions are teaching us about how all experiences can be met with purpose, and we can learn from all of them.
This summer I was standing in a storage shed we use for classroom supplies feeling overwhelmed by the work that was necessary to prepare for this upcoming outdoor school year. I heard the familiar call of a red-tailed hawk and turned around, leaning on the doorway to watch the hawk soaring above me. In that moment, I found myself thinking about how beautiful that distraction was, and how honored I felt to be a part of something so important and connected to the natural world. I was wishing for this same experience for all teachers and students and families everywhere.
This year has shown me the many benefits that being outdoors can provide, and I will continue to keep my classroom outside as long as possible. Every child deserves to develop their sense of self and purpose by navigating all the wonders the natural world has to offer. This experience has allowed me the daily reminder that being outside has growth benefits for students and teachers alike and that there is always time to stop and admire the natural world and the beauty that connects us.
Heather Peters is a Head Teacher at Touchstone Community School in Grafton, MA. She currently teaches the 6/7-year-old group. Heather is passionate about progressive education and is always growing in her understanding of what it means to be a teacher. She is a parent of two young people, Ruth and Fern, and her goal is to be the kind of teacher that they would be proud of. You can reach her at email@example.com.