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Taking Lessons Outside, Rain or Shine

3 years ago

The young students of Assumption Academy know it takes patience to foster Faith and Hope. You need to provide the right nourishment. You need to provide a safe environment. And you need to be careful not to get pecked.

That’s because Faith and Hope are the school’s chickens.

The fowls are part of the outdoor classroom at Assumption Academy of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish, a preschool and Kindergarten  in Wayne, PA. The chickens — along with raised flower beds, a composting station, and observation stations — allow for student-led, hands-on learning fueled by the children’s own curiosity. The result, says Principal Patricia Welsh, is a unique opportunity to develop the whole student.

“From seeing the children’s excitement over an egg they’ve found, to their amazement at the size of the pumpkins they’ve grown,” says Welsh, “I am just thrilled that they are able to freely explore and discover the wonders of God’s creation.”

Five-year-old Micah enjoys feeding the chickens seeds from the sunflowers he helped grow in the school’s garden. Five-year-old Eesha notes that the chickens lay brown eggs because they have red earlobes. And their classmate Timmy, also 5, still remembers when he got to hold a freshly hatched egg.

“It felt hard and warm,” Timmy says. “It was light brown and I brought it into the office.”

The chickens are more than a source of entertainment, Welsh says. Faith and Hope present opportunities to demonstrate the full circle of caring for God’s creatures, including feeding them, protecting them from predators, and collecting their eggs for cooking projects.

“The students are very aware of what can be recycled — they are very respectful of animals and their habitats,” Welsh says. “If you are mean to a chicken, you might get pecked. If you overwater plants, they will not grow. The respect is wonderful to see.”

During daily visits to the outdoor classroom, which typically last 20 to 30 minutes, students learn valuable lessons about gardening, food, and sustainability. Leftover snacks go into the composter, which helps create fertile soil. That gives nutrients to the plants — including daffodils, tomatoes, and pumpkins — parts of which can be eaten or fed to the chickens. Worms are a doubly prized find: students can decide whether their fate will be compost aid or chicken food.

Welsh says this kind of student-driven learning was one of the main draws of the outdoor classroom concept, which she began researching while the school was becoming accredited with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). With her interest piqued, Welsh visited a preschool outdoor classroom while visiting Switzerland. There, she picked up the philosophy that “there is no bad weather — only bad clothing.”

At Assumption Academy, each student has a pair of rain boots outside his or her cubby. Unless the temperature is below freezing, the students venture out every day, rain or shine, to explore the outdoors.

At the discovery zone, children can use binoculars, magnifying glasses, and sound machines to explore their senses and surroundings in their own way, at their own pace. They can also tread across the sensory walk — a path built with a variety of textures, temperatures, and objects — with their bare feet.

“I like our sensory walk,” says Timmy. “The rocks make it kind of wobbly to walk, and the bubble wrap feels like when I walk on the boardwalk at the shore.”

“It makes your feet feel good,” adds Bobby, age 6.

Assumption Academy’s outdoor facilities were previously limited to blacktop and small playground. Once school faculty were ready to take the plunge, they hired contractors to design and expand the play area with the new outdoor classroom.

On top of students’ contributions, school faculty take charge of maintaining the classroom throughout the year: teachers Kate Geckle and Suzanne LeGendre oversee the gardening projects, while Welsh manages the chickens. The teachers also actively monitor the children to minimize accidents and exposure to allergens, keeping first aid kits and EpiPens nearby.

Otherwise, the adults let the students take charge, stepping in occasionally to answer questions or provide guidance. Now in their second year with the outdoor classroom, Welsh says teachers, parents, and students have learned to embrace the messiness — mud, puddles, and all.

“We spend a lot of time washing hands, but other than that, we’re having fun,” she says. “Students are often expected to be pristine — being told what to do, what to know, and how to be. This is one place where they can just be kids.”