Opportunities to connect with nature are woven throughout our curriculum and through students’ daily experiences on our campus and beyond.
In keeping with our Guiding Principles, we help children learn to care for and respect nature through our Environmental Literacy Program.
Our Helios curriculum regularly takes students out of the classroom to provide real-world examples of what they’re studying. These trips engage our students’ imaginations and elicit a captivating desire to learn more. Fieldwork enhances their classroom study. In turn, their classroom work is deepened by their fieldwork.
Note that we don’t call our outings “field trips”, as students are doing actual field work. We rarely use “off-the-shelf” tours. Instead we work to create experiences in the community, which give students the opportunity to conduct research and interview experts connected to the current semester’s theme of study. This approach allows them to deeply engage, beginning with the introduction of the subject material.
For a recent Expedition about the Age of Exploration, for example, our first and second grade students visited a tall ship in the San Francisco Bay to learn what 16th century ocean voyages were really like. Rather than participating in a packaged visit with actors in historical costumes, they boarded a working ship and learned the rudiments of sailing. They were able to interview the crew with their own questions and had hands-on experiences in steering the ship and raising the sails. Students’ curiosity was piqued through their exploration. They returned home with vivid impressions of ocean voyaging for their journals and other upcoming projects.
Our carefully constructed camping curriculum begins in kindergarten with a one-night campout on our campus, and progresses to longer trips further afield. These trips, taken by students and teachers, are special bonding times for each class.
We begin by teaching basic skills such as tent setup, outdoor cooking and cleaning, then build to map reading, plant and animal identification, and basic first aid. We create a safe atmosphere so students can expand their comfort zones and feel empowered to try new things.
The trips often tie into our multidisciplinary Expeditions. One year, at the end of a semester-long study of the Age of Exploration, our first and second graders camped on the beach and imagined they were shipwrecked. That context and imaginative flourish gave them a strong desire to learn wilderness survival skills and to deepen their understanding of the historical era. When students have the opportunity to make connections like this in their areas of study the learning is deep and meaningful.
We relish the time spent learning with our students in the wild. Over the years we’ve seen multiple, complementary benefits:
- Children overcome anxieties as they spend more time outdoors and become comfortable in nature.
- Children develop a greater sense of confidence and self-reliance.
- Students gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the environment.
- Teachers learn even more about their students’ personalities and behaviors.
- Students and teachers grow closer as a class and community due to their shared experiences and reliance upon one another.
Our kids return from their camping experiences more mature and with a sense of accomplishment not gained in a classroom environment.
Our extensive outdoor space provides a rich opportunity for students to play, learn and connect with the natural world. In addition to tending our farm and garden, they build with pallets, scrap lumber and zip ties in a wooded area the students dubbed the “Wilderness Village.” What begins as a blank slate evolves into an elaborate world where they’re free to create, interact, and imagine.
We provide students with gentle adult supervision and reinforce our school motto, “Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Kind.” But above all we give them the time, space and agency to create. With this freedom, the Wilderness Village becomes a community in microcosm, where students interact with the environment to create their own culture. They build cottage industries, design currencies and trade commodities. They practice science in the field, learning that a sloped roof will shed rain and how a pulley system works. They plan, conceptualize, work as a team, project manage, improvise, take risks, learn from failure and persevere to success.
Most of all, our students practice critical social-emotional skills as they collaborate in their ongoing adventure, discovery and play.
Research shows that hands-on, self-directed learning with plants and animals is beneficial for physical development, including large and fine motor skills.
Our Farm & Garden are a special retreat where children play and care for plants and chickens, during recess and after school. The Farm provides a wealth of sensory experiences — the smell and feel of wet soil, sunlight refracting through water from the hose, the sound of chickens clucking — which are especially beneficial for gifted learners. Children practice kindness and empathy as they care for the plants and animals, and they develop a meaningful connection to their food and the earth.
In addition to student-directed play in the garden, they also maintain and beautify the space, participate in large-scale projects such as permaculture design, and do planned experiments like seed-saving, soil tests, composting, and caring for their own garden plots. Gardening is also available as an elective for 3rd through 8th graders and as a short class after-PE for 7th and 8th graders.