Outside School Uses Nature as the Classroom

Outside School Uses Nature as the Classroom

On a typical day at Outside School, everyone meets in the parking lot at Alvarado Park then the class members hike and play observing the abundant wildlife until snack/storybook time. Adventuring continues until lunch at noon, with more stories, and, for the older kids, journaling.

To borrow freely from Dickens: “The lizard was dead to begin with. There is no doubt whatsoever about that.”

When Heather Taylor’s Outside School group of eight kids came across the deceased reptile on one of their hikes in Richmond’s Alvarado Park, Taylor whipped out the dissecting kit she carries in the trunk of her car. After carefully examining and commenting on the lizard’s external anatomy, the fascinated class watched as she showed them the animal’s interior structure, comparing it to what was inside them.

“My son was blown away by this,” said Outside School parent Minna Dubin.

The lizard, Taylor explained, had possibly been dropped by a raptor, or even a coyote. A female, it was pregnant, and the class was able to observe what the embryos looked like. Afterwards, in tribute to the animal and its lessons, they built an altar, carefully laying out both mother and embryos. The next day, when the class returned, all traces of the lizard were gone.

The class then enjoyed a reading of Peter Meinke’s 1968 classic, The Legend of Larry the Lizard.

Taylor spent most of her own childhood outdoors. Her mother worked for the California state parks system, and the family moved all over the Bay Area as she was transferred from park to park. In eighth grade, she attended a “two-room schoolhouse in Hollister State Park with 30 kids in the whole school,” she remembered. Days were spent on her BMX bike. In high school, she excelled at cross-country running.

Her love of the outdoors and science eventually led to UC Davis, where she worked in the herpetology labs, then UC Berkeley, where she prepped biology labs for students’ experiments. A mentor encouraged her to consider teaching, and she became a preschool teacher, eventually working in and developing a gardening program. After working for another forest school program, and creating an “outside school” as an elementary after-school program, she took the leap and opened her own Outside School/Teach Outside. She credits experience running a Halloween-themed merchandise business with her husband for giving her the organizational skills needed. Taylor is also a certified EMT.

Outside School serves kids in grades K-12, with a variety of options, including the regular Tuesday-Thursday 9 a.m.-3 p.m. classes, summer camps, and alternatives for kids who can only attend one day a week, or one month only. Taylor enrolls a maximum of eight students in each class. Her materials spell out her approach: “Our educational systems are great, but they’re not for everyone. I envision a place where children and their families who, for whatever reason, are uncomfortable with other programs that are available for their children’s education.”

Her approach has proved ideal for Minna Dubin’s 6-year-old son, who has a sensory processing disorder and has had problems with physical aggression with other children. Taylor developed a “game” that he could play with others that both used and countered his energy. “It was the first time I’d found an educator who did not see him as the problem,” Dubin said. “He was at his best self outside.”

On a typical day at Outside School, everyone meets in the parking lot at Alvarado Park. “Then the kids decide where they want to hike. Hats and sunblock on first,” Taylor said. Hiking and playing lasts until 10 a.m., when it’s snack/storybook time. The kids observe the abundant wildlife of the park, which includes many birds, coyotes, foxes, squirrels, amphibians, and reptiles. Adventuring continues until lunch at noon, with more stories, and, for the older kids, journaling. “We decide what we want to do for the last hours of the day,” Taylor said, “and by pick-up time, everyone is very tired and dirty.”

Olivia Chen’s daughter, Madison, 5, who is currently in kindergarten, thrives on the time she spends in Outside School. Chen met Taylor at one of her previous preschool positions, and said, “We trust her knowledge. My daughter is an outgoing, enthusiastic child, and she needs structure but also a lot of freedom.” (Madison, Chen reported, was also enthralled by the dead lizard encounter.)

Though the mix of ages in Outside School classes might not work elsewhere, it works well under Taylor’s system. Dubin’s son, for example, evolved a strong friendship during summer camp with a 10-year-old. “Heather is skilled at letting the relationships develop by themselves,” Dubin said.

And each day at Outside School develops by itself.

Taylor’s philosophy depends on finding out what her students’ needs are, and then teaching to what they need most. This can involve sociaI, cognitive, or physical development, and she constantly changes gears to address new things. “A preplanned curriculum is simply not my style,” she said.

For example, she pointed out, “If I had planned out the day we found the lizard, I wouldn’t have been available for that experience.” She’s found that her flexibility is especially appropriate for students who have speech delays or are on the autism spectrum. One of the first things she discusses with parents is whether their child has an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the document developed for each public school child in the United States who needs special education, and if so, what it involves. Knowing this, she works to accommodate the child’s needs.

Those needs can be met while at the same time learning about and how to value time in nature. Dubin noted that her son “learns from her about the water, how not to disturb what’s living there. We’re thrilled to let him have these experiences in a safe way.”

Taylor has discovered that kids who have spent most of their time indoors and in public schools have to make physical adjustments to natural surfaces. “In the beginning, they don’t have the motor skills to walk or run on uneven surfaces,” she said. But that’s quickly overcome, adding to the students’ confidence levels.

“Madison is learning by discovery,” said Chen. “She is not afraid.”

Though Taylor is firm that she doesn’t “idealize the environment,” she “brings the idea of conservation into day-to-day knowledge of the land.” This is absorbed by the students, parents reported.

“My son really cares about the world,” said Dubin. “He thinks about the Earth in a caretaker way … he often suggests we walk, ‘so we don’t make more CO2.'”

Chen emphasized that she’s aware that for most of the rest of Madison’s life, she will likely be indoors, making the time she spends outside now even more precious.

“The experiences they are having are genuine and authentic,” said Dubin.

And, said Taylor, smiling, “Everyone is excited to be back by Tuesday.”

After all, they never know what they’re going to find next.

Faces of the East Bay