What better way to teach students about nature than to get them outside.

Teachers in six Madison classrooms collaborated in an effort to educate their second- through fourth-grade students outside one day a week during the school year.

While the amount of time each day varied, the time of year did not deter the classrooms from Lincoln and Muir elementary schools and Wingra School. For example, Wingra students created “sit upons” — makeshift cushions created by stuffing newspapers in Ziploc bags. When there was snow, the students sat on their cushions placed on a tarp spread on the ground.

Sagar Gomden, a fourth-grader at Lincoln, said his favorite day of the year was pretending to be part of a dog sled team, while Aaron Beard, a second-grader at Muir, liked snowshoeing.

The outdoor study culminated with an Outdoor Education Summit last month at the Madison School Forest.

The point “was to dedicate a day and be really committed to it,” said Tresi Smyth, a teacher of 7- to 9-year-olds at Wingra School, who noted that students became more hardy as the year went on.

Depending on the school, the experience was either mostly outdoor education, which covered the natural world, or more of a mix with education outdoors, which meant taking lesson plans for other topics outside.

“I just really like being outside in the nature and sometimes you can hear the trees whistle,” said Habiba Highsmith, a second-grader at Wingra.

Door closes, another opens

The outdoor education commitment came about because some of the teachers had done inquiry-based learning with their students through their participation in an organization called Heron Network. After that initiative dissolved, some teachers started talking about another collaboration for the 2015-2016 school year. It continued again this year with plans for next year and perhaps another summit.

Jen Greenwald, a second-grade teacher at Muir Elementary School, was granted $1,000 for the summit from the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin Teachers’ Outdoor Environmental Education Fund.

The day featured naturalists leading hikes; a talk by Sam Dennis, chairman of the landscape architecture department at UW-Madison; and an art project for display starting on the Free Family Night on July 5 at the Madison Children’s Museum. Students also chose a session to attend on topics such as knot tying, coyotes and foxes, and nature art.

The teachers involved in the outdoor education collaboration this year were Greenwald and Shannon Richards at Muir; Smyth and Weslie Cymerman, Angela Baker and Cathy Schrager at Wingra; and Josie Guiney Igielski, Kari Petre and Mary Ann Feutz at Lincoln.

Greenwald and Smyth said being outside so much didn’t come naturally for all students.

“For some, just being outside where there are insects feels like a big risk,” said Greenwald, who hopes that working through those fears will translate to other challenges in the classroom.

Playing outside is different socially, emotionally and physically than what happens in the classroom, Smyth said.

“It is part of who they are that they (otherwise) might not bring to light at school,” Smyth said.

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