In the beginning, Wilderness Wednesday at Etude was simply a way for teacher Ali McKeone to get herself and her first graders outside and enjoy a little fresh air.
It wasn’t a regular occurrence; the lifelong nature lover simply wanted to share her excitement about being outside with her kids.
Little by little, the idea grew, eventually aided by the participation of kindergarten teacher Brittany Hattabaugh, until Wilderness Wednesday became a regular outing that introduced their students to the freedom of being outside.
The teachers found ways to incorporate the natural world into lessons that corresponded to what they did in class, and discovered new ways to connect with their students.
Starting with the 2020-21 school year, Wilderness Wednesday will be expanded to all of K-1 at Etude.
To make that possible, McKeone and Hattabaugh put together a document laying out objectives for time spent outside, the academic standards the proposed lessons address, and a long list of additional resources on outdoor activities.
McKeone, who is an avid hiker and camper, is a certified Forest School Leader Level 3, which means she’s qualified to run a preschool based entirely in nature. Until she fulfills that bucket list item, she is sharing her expertise with Etude students and fellow teachers.
Hattabaugh jokingly says she got “sucked in” to the outdoor teaching concept a couple of years ago, when she saw the transformation of her otherwise energetic, sometimes rowdy students into eager outdoor learners.
“I had a bit of a challenging class, and when they went out into the woods it was a totally different class in the best way possible,” she said.
One student summed it up this way, she recalled: “My soul is so happy when we come out here.”
Almost any lesson can be taught outside, and some subjects lend themselves easily to outside learning. That includes math: counting the holes in leaves students find, collecting sticks and building with them or putting them in order of size and finding shapes that occur in nature.
The kids also learn to use hand tools, including a crosscut saw. They’re coached on how to conduct themselves safely and then allowed to explore, experiment and help one another – always following safety guidelines.
“There is risky play involved,” McKeone said. “We do safety talks, we do training, we’re very careful about it. Students know they can lose the privilege. It pushes them, especially the quiet ones, further than we could.”
Students have reported back that with their new proficiency they’re being allowed to help parents with little projects at home, and both teachers have seen huge improvements in self-confidence in maturity they can tie directly to Wilderness Wednesday.
Since schools have been closed, McKeone and Hattabaugh have continued Wilderness Wednesday via distance teaching, though in a more relaxed way. Using emails, texts, Facebook, and the distance learning platform Seesaw, they’re providing parents with ideas for places to go and activities to do there. One example is devising a scavenger hunt tied to that day’s unit.
“We’re still providing activities for the kids, doing videos, making connections to the curriculum where they can go outside,” McKeone said.
Though it started out as a novel way to help kids improve their motor skills and build relationships with their peers, Wilderness Wednesday has turned into the sort of unique learning experience that fits in perfectly with the rest of Etude’s philosophy.
“What’s great about Etude is it pushes kids out of their comfort zone in the best way possible,” Hattabaugh said. “Outdoors is another one of those things. It’s another way to get the kids out of their comfort zone while having great learning opportunities.”