Across seven JCC Chicago early childhood locations, young learners are thriving in outdoor classrooms where they’re exploring how to solve problems, think critically and collaborate, all with the open sky above them. It’s part of JCC Chicago’s curriculum to immerse young students in outdoor learning for significant portions of their day year-round to involve more meaningful explorations and learning.
“We have done a lot of research on the concept of the outdoor classroom and why this type of learning is so important for children,” says Leanne Nathan, director of JCC Chicago Early Childhood at ‘Z’ Frank Apachi in Northbrook. “It’s just as important as good food to eat and a good night of sleep. Being outside helps them thrive, clears their brains and gives them an appreciation for nature.” Studies show outdoor learning imparts big benefits, especially for children ages 6 weeks to 5 years old.
Each JCC Chicago location — from the 10-acre ‘Z’ Frank Apachi campus, one of two Northbrook locations, to the even larger Lake Zurich location, to Glencoe, West Rogers Park, Lakeview, and the newest site in Evanston — has outdoor classrooms designed by experts to meet the needs of infants, toddlers and preschoolers. These outdoor classrooms have become even more critical during this pandemic to provide children with fresh air and much needed physical activity outdoors.
JCC Chicago’s early childhood program is based on the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational framework that gives children the time and space to delve deeply into learning through self-guided exploration. In essence, a child’s curriculum is determined by their own interests and curiosities. “When I’m describing this approach to parents, I often say that I’d rather read a book that I have chosen rather than one that someone else has chosen for me,” Nathan explains.
And, JCC Chicago’s outdoor classrooms provide ample opportunities for exploration. “We take the children outside and see what they are interested in. It might be rolling down a hill or watching the clouds in the sky. It’s incredible the questions they come up with,” she says. “What’s even more exciting is the children are the ones finding the answers.” In addition to safety, the teachers focus on guiding the children along as they make their own discoveries. “We are facilitators, rather than adults who present the facts.”
Among the tree stumps and willow huts, children create dance parties, grocery stores and ice cream shops. They participate in corn stalk harvesting for the festival of Sukkot, picking ears of corn and wondering where the kernels go when they are not watching. “They come up with the theory that animals ate them,” Nathan shares. “Then we plant some kernels and talk about the beginning of the growth cycle for the corn.”
In JCC Chicago’s outdoor classrooms, plastic play structures have been replaced with easels, dramatic play stages and roofed houses, complete with mud kitchens. Rather than prepare meals of plastic food, the children mold feasts out of mud, leaves and sticks. “They get messy, but they explore their environment in truly kid-friendly ways,” Nathan says.
Specially designed water-resistant “muddy buddy” suits cover the children’s outer clothing, making it easier for them to be outside in all weather conditions, even snow and rain. “We have all learned that being outside during this pandemic is healthier than being inside, so we adopt the saying that there is no such thing as bad weather,” she says.
Collaboration, not competition
Outdoor learning requires teamwork and collaboration to achieve bigger goals, such as building structures solely from natural elements. And, says Nathan, the children ask one another for help and support. “There’s a lot of give and take, which is an important skill for their future. These behaviors then extend into the home and are reflected within the family dynamic as well,” she says.
In the outdoor classrooms, children build language and vocabulary of richly descriptive words to describe natural processes. They engage in problem-solving and divergent thinking (Where do bugs go to get out of the rain?) And, they develop physical skills of balance, strength and body awareness. “For children, physical challenges increase self-confidence and self-esteem,” Nathan says.
Outdoor education is what makes JCC Chicago preschools a top choice for parents, says Nathan. “Parent feedback is always strong, and parents say that our innovative approach to outdoor education differentiates us from other preschools. And,” she adds, “they love that they don’t have to take their kids sledding in the winter because we do that for them.”
Learn more about JCC Chicago’s Early Childhood outdoor education at jccchicagoearlychildhood.org.