Educator Alison Katzko wrote this post, the second in a three-part series celebrating outdoor educators. You can read her first interview, with Xena Biffert, here.
Kindergarten teacher Abi Henneberry takes her young students outside for a walk of at least one kilometer every morning. “Our longest walk this year has been more than 4.7 kilometers,” she told me. “By the end of the year, conservatively, we will have walked the distance from St. Albert to Calgary.”
They go outside every day, even in the winter. Abi emphasized that students can still get outside for exercise and fresh air during Alberta’s frigid winters. Proper clothing, communication with parents, and education for staff and students about safety in low temperatures are all key factors for building students’ awareness and resilience in our relatively cold climate. Even with temperatures between -20°C (-4ºF) and -30°C (-22ºF), she still tries to get some quick time outdoors. For example, one day, instead of taking a walk in the community, Abi and her students stayed in the schoolyard: “We did yoga poses that day in the snow, took pictures, then raced around to keep our circulation going and returned indoors before anyone got too chilled.” Abi believes that children need to be climate-aware and prepared for extreme weather, no matter where they live—but especially here in the north.
As for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abi has found that getting outside “is the best way for children to release energy safely and take a break from wearing their masks.”
Planning for Walks and Building Curriculum Into Outdoor Time
Abi explained that she bases her walking routes on “what we’re learning and how we’re feeling each day.” She said, “My students are full-day attendees, so I like to bring them inside to get sorted before heading out for an adventure. We come in, get their things put away, make washroom trips and clothing adjustments, take attendance, and discuss our route and plan for the morning. We also do a feelings check-in to address our general energy level and attitude as a group. We address questions and concerns and then proceed to the route.”
This routine helps, as her students start the day by being outside for at least an hour. They often spend even more time outside: “I do increase that time because we are doing work while outside. We are working on numbers. We are identifying letters. We are doing science. We’re working on cooperating and following rules. We work through games that enhance fitness.” Abi’s students are engaging in a lot of curriculum during that time outside!
As for how she plans for this curriculum content, she said, “I plan differently for different purposes. I start with getting kids outside and finding what is challenging and interesting— knowing that we can connect anything to a curricular outcome. I take kids outside and utilize conscientious reverse design. I know that was math, and that was language arts, and that’s a science lesson. I know I’m not going to be able to meet every single element of the curriculum at once, whether inside or out. It’s a combination of both, with a heavy focus on learning in the outdoor environment, through which I believe we achieve a rich and valid curricular balance.”
Bringing Meaning to Students’ Learning and Connecting Learning to the Real World
Abi noted that because of this time outdoors, “the curriculum has more depth and meaning, because they can take it beyond the activities and work in the classroom.” As a kindergarten teacher, she has a great deal of passion for bringing meaning to what she is teaching. “It doesn’t do me any good to teach the alphabet, numbers, or reading without meaningful context in the real, tangible world,” she told me.
Abi has a wealth of ideas for connecting her young students to meaningful learning. She sees taking students outside as a way to create meaningful experiences to build connections: “That’s why going outside to learn in a variety of environments is so important. It identifies purpose, fosters understanding, and informs practice in our world.”
Abi shared how going outside can become a learning experience: “An example of environmental math connection is identifying the numbers on houses. A lot of students live near the school, so knowing the numbers on the houses has a real-world, practical application as well as reinforces number recognition. It is inspiring to watch children make new connections between curricular elements and real-world experiences. These ‘aha!’ moments are valuable for fostering interest in lifelong learning from a young age. Meaning often comes from such connections, and witnessing the process unfold excites me as an educator.”
She can see in students, as well as in adults, how excitement builds and grows “when people gain a new perspective or change their perspective. Then they themselves are excited about what they’ve observed in and learned about their world.”
Engaging in hands-on experiences is key. “I think learning is most meaningful when you take it into their immediate world,” Abi said. “When children walk by things they can see and touch at eye level, they experience them more personally and fully.” She noted that “children are usually driven to destinations and pass unknowingly by interesting features near their homes.” As an example, she mentioned a neighborhood ravine: “Now that they get to walk back and explore the actual wooded space, I’m getting stories from parents about going for family walks, when the kids show and inform them about what we’ve seen in class.” Abi recognizes this as “an expanding knowledge of community for the families living there.”
Again, meaningful learning and real-world connections can be connected to the curriculum: “Getting out in the community and making it real at the children’s level challenges us to observe and problem-solve, which is part of our curriculum. For example, we’ve run into situations on our first excursions like the one in the children’s song ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’: ‘We can’t go over it. We can’t go through it. We’ll have to go under it.’ This has led the children to think about the matter at hand and progress accordingly, using their skills to keep the adventure on track. It’s being aware of the curriculum and how it connects to what we’re doing outside. We often look for letters in the environment and discuss how ‘the tree is formed in an upside-down “A”’ or ‘that peak of the roof has an “A” or looks like an upside-down “V.”’ Again, it’s about getting them to look at things and try to see things that they might otherwise overlook. It is also giving them the opportunity to practice and explore. This is building a lifestyle where their learning is part of their everyday lives.”
Abi’s kindergarten students discover a snow-covered shelter in the forest during their daily morning adventure walk. “This was a great opportunity to discuss the fact that shelter is a basic need for all living things,” Abi says, “and to talk about the concept of volume and non-standard measurement: How many kindergarten kids can fit inside this space?!?! Now we can compare our findings with other discoveries!” (Abi Henneberry)
Learning to Adapt and Work Together
Abi said, “When kids go outside, they work together and individually to adapt to their surroundings and situations. They often complain when they first go outside that it’s too cold or that they don’t like the wind, but they soon build resilience through creative problem-solving, using their imaginations, and working together, all of which are key elements of our schoolwide character development program.”
She shared an example: “On one occasion, a child was having fun running outside, ran right into a tree, and immediately succumbed to tears. We first checked for injuries then talked about how it happened and how he felt and empathized with him. Next, we brainstormed about how this happened in the first place and what could be done in the future to prevent it from occurring again. Through these types of experiences, children are able to grow and adapt. Students become more resilient, and they are then able to explore with more confidence. These situations also provide opportunities to learn and practice empathy and respect. I get excited when I see examples in a class grouping of these extremely important qualities building amongst students.”
This has been especially important during COVID-19. As Abi said, “We are finding that, currently, kids in kindergarten—and, really, all ages—are missing those opportunities to develop social skills. Right now, the uncertainty surrounding teams, clubs, and group lessons in person is taking a huge toll on this aspect of children’s social development. Any chance to be together in a safe environment and minimize health risks is welcome!”
How Spontaneous Learning Creates Engagement
“I love when spontaneous learning happens,” Abi told me.
She emphasized that this happens “all the time when you take students outside. Those experiences just arise as you explore, and you must take advantage of them to further learning and practice.”
She shared a story from her class: “We have delighted in discovering slugs underneath oak leaves, muskrats surfacing in local ponds and swimming to shore, and migrating geese establishing nesting grounds. Once, we discovered very active, fearless voles in the green space surrounding a local storm pond. They had created holes and tunnels in the grasses we had passed many times, and they were jumping everywhere. This was a tremendous opportunity for children to appreciate their place as visitors in another species’ world.”
As an educator, Abi finds that going with the flow in a hands-on way is key to creating meaning: “Going with the moment, especially now with COVID and our need to adapt quickly—allowing activities to evolve spontaneously outdoors— just keeps it real.”
Building Community Connections and Empathy in Students
Taking students outdoors and into the community helps them build connections to the community and develop empathy for the community members.
As an example, Abi shared how learning about walking on the sidewalk, versus treading on community members’ lawns, develops an awareness and empathy for others in her kindergarten students. They become aware that if they walk on the sidewalk, they should be careful to respect the time and effort the neighborhood people have spent keeping that space clean and safe. For example, “You never know if someone who shoveled that walk after a big snow was a person who would have a hard time reshoveling.”
The benefits are reciprocal: “People in the community see the children as active learners in their neighborhood. It builds community connections between citizens of all ages.”
Abi told me a story about a city employee surveying street construction who agreeably stopped his work to explain to the children why he was taking pictures of the road. When the kids saw him again on their next day’s walk, they yelled, “Hi, Toby!” Abi related, “Toby was thrilled to be a celebrity for a moment, as the kids were so excited to see him! In moments like this, we are able to connect safely with workers in our community, and they start learning about traffic safety and crossing streets. We’re practicing good awareness and life skills while also getting exercise.”
“Kindergarten children explore a fun and challenging sensory activity in an outdoor mud kitchen in the rain,” Abi reports. “They exemplify the idea that there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing!” (Abi Henneberry)
Finding a Connection to Nature in an Urban Setting
Although Abi teaches in an urban environment, she stresses that natural elements and spaces can be found anywhere. A lot of development has been taking place in the area surrounding Abi’s school. This has helped direct meaningful, thought-provoking discussions with her class. She asks her students questions such as, “How do you think building all these new roads, houses, and stores is affecting the birds and other animals in our area who depend on the land for survival?” Storm ponds are being built, and the students can see how that is impacting the neighborhood and the wildlife, as well as mitigating damage to the environment in other ways.
As far as engaging with city spaces, Abi stressed that “there’s not always as much nature to observe as you would like, but you can create nature spaces. You can have planted pots instead of a garden in the ground. You can grow vegetables and plants in containers—building up, not out. Your local permaculture and horticultural societies will be able to support you.”
She shared, “My passion is the outdoors. One of my suggestions is to look at what you have, not what you don’t have. The book Be a City Nature Detective, by Peggy Kochanoff, talks about lichen and moss and how they grow in sidewalk spaces. It just shows that nature tries to grow everywhere, so getting outside—you will be able to find that connection.”
Fostering New Perspectives
Time spent outside with students creating these newfound outlooks often deepens their understanding of local and global concerns. As Abi said, “Everything we learn in our daily outdoor time can be extrapolated to some practice at the greater global level.”
Abi related the following story: “There is a park near us called Coal Mine Park. It was just a vacant lot full of deadfall and construction trash for months. A local community teacher-activist spearheaded building a pollinator garden and set of interpretive trails in this space, touting the project as a boon for the school community nearby. The city met with school staff for input, and now we have a beautiful forested natural space within walking distance for all age groups at our school. It is a little oasis with a gravel path, signage, a few seats, and a lot of space to explore. Pileated woodpeckers, rabbits, small rodents, and evidence of deer abound. The same teacher-activist advised our school community on the construction of another pollinator garden and community food garden on our school property. We have now contributed to creating a corridor for pollinators in the community, and many school families are on board with extending the idea in their own growing spaces at home. This is the ripple effect at its best!”
Coal Mine Park provided another lesson in perspective, awareness, and empathy for Abi’s kindergarten class: “I remember hearing and wanting to expand on the saying, ‘You don’t know how someone else truly feels until you’ve walked a mile in their moccasins.’ The saying specifically avoids the words ‘in someone else’s shoes,’ because moccasins have a soft bottom and you feel everything beneath your feet more intensely in them than in hard-soled shoes.
“One day, before we left the classroom for our morning walk, I asked the students to bang on the bottom of their shoes to see what they felt. I asked them, ‘Can you feel much?’ Of course, the students could not feel much through the thick soles of their shoes. The class then traveled to the pathway through Coal Mine Park. I invited the children to ‘take off one of your shoes and try walking with one foot in your shoe and the other just in your sock.’ The children quickly discovered that their two feet felt very different—one felt every detail on the exposed path, while the other was dulled to the details of the surface, due to the ‘protection’ of the sole of the shoe. The children discovered that walking over the leaves on the path was a lot more comfortable than walking on the small rocks.
“This led to a conversation about our own sensitivity to our environment and how we perceive our surroundings through our five senses, particularly touch, as in this case. We then talked about the lifestyle and clothing of Indigenous peoples, who likely walked this very ground, long before other families came to St. Albert. I asked the class to think about the first people who walked here. ‘Do you think they had shoes like yours? They felt the ground underneath them through the soles of very different footwear. They knew their world in a very different way because they were closer to it.’ This spawned even further discussion about how we see and treat our surroundings today and how we can change our perspective to be more responsible, aware citizens.
It is evident that experiences like these have support from parents and the community. Abi shared, “Even though the kids were sent home with filthy feet by the end of that day, I never heard a complaint from the parents. This was because the kids themselves came home excited, with the positive perspective and understanding of a connection to nature and a sense of history.”
Left to right: Abi subscribes to a way of thinking summarized in this quote from Bradley Miller: “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.”; Of this hand-made peace sign, Abi says, “Reminders of peace are all around us. We can create it for ourselves and others in our surroundings if we are curious and observant.” (Abi Henneberry)
Dealing With the Challenges
The connection to learning built through combining curriculum and time in natural spaces is key to Abi’s strength as an educator. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any challenges.
Abi said, “For myself, the challenge in getting children outdoors is within my comfort zone, and I believe that with the right support, it is completely surmountable in any school setting. I think people interested in pursuing more outdoor programming need to begin with bite-size chunks in their comfort zones and support from others who have done it. Outdoor education extends beyond the focus on physical activity outside.”
Many classroom teachers struggle to justify time away from the classroom—the setting in which they are accustomed to teaching and achieving academic goals. Abi suggests these educators consider, “What are things you now do indoors that you could do outdoors?”
For example, a teacher needed to complete a poetry unit with her students and wondered if there was a way to connect this with an outdoor adventure. Abi and the teacher worked together and decided to take a walk with the class to observe and record characteristics of two different items along the way (rock/tree, puddle/cloud, bird/dog, pavement/grass) as inspiration for their writing. The students then used their recordings to write relevant diamante poems. Not only did they need to rely on their observations, but they also had to understand the use of language (nouns, adjectives, verbs, participles, adverbs) to complete the poem successfully. Finally, the students were invited to illustrate their two subjects and display their combined efforts for others to enjoy. Abi said, “This experience gave the teacher formative and summative assessments of a number of curricular elements, and students made new connections with their immediate environment near the school. It was a win-win for all!”
Abi offered the following final thoughts: “In making space for outdoor time that’s connected to learning, teachers can see the relation of many different things to the curriculum. I can remember somebody saying to me in a casual conversation years ago, ‘Outside—that’s where we all came from. No matter how high you build a skyscraper or thick you build your walls, that is where we come from. If you go out there to learn, you acknowledge the very roots of our existence. You can’t deny that the outdoors sustains us.’”
This post is adapted from an article that appeared in the October 2021 issue of Connections, a publication of the Global Environmental and Outdoor Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Abi completed the course “Developing a National Geographic Explorer Mindset with Your Learners” and says she “continually uses it as a platform for teaching and collegial inspiration.” By enrolling in the 50-minute course, you, too, can learn more about the Explorer Mindset and join a supportive community of global educators.
Abi Henneberry currently teaches full-day English kindergarten at Lois E. Hole Elementary School in St. Albert, Alberta, Canada, where she has also taught K-6 nature education. Abi is an outdoor enthusiast who enjoys equestrian activities, camping, hiking, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, kayaking, and cycling. Abi is certified as a Level 1 Field Leader in Hiking, Winter, and Overnight activities through the Outdoor Council of Canada. She volunteers with the Little Bits Therapeutic Riding Association in Edmonton, Alberta, and is pursuing certification with the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association. She plans to combine her background in education with her love of the outdoors and equestrian experience for the benefit of others.
Alison Katzko is a National Geographic Certified Educator and loves the arts and exploring. She currently teaches grade four in Alberta, Canada, and previously taught in Bhutan, Thailand, and the United States. She values developing a passion for the natural world through greater understanding of Indigenous and land-based knowledge. Her students have connected with explorers and scientists around the world, including through the National Geographic Educator-Explorer Exchange. She is the journal editor for Connections, the journal of the Global, Environmental and Outdoor Education Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.
Featured image: Kindergarten students enjoy journaling in the school community garden they have just explored (Abi Henneberry)