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Integrating Science and Art with a Sense of Place: The Waldorf Senior Zoology Trip

July 25, 2023
By Gary Banks

Originally published in the Spring 2023 Renewal Magazine
 

The sun has set, and the sound of the surf is heard just outside this empty wooden building. One hundred Waldorf seniors on this year's trip are out at the ocean's edge on the star-lit beach making ablution. They cleanse their hands, feet, and face in the cold ocean water, purify and calm their minds and then quietly open their senses to the nature of this island they will inhabit this week. 

Slowly they re-enter the Kelp Shed, most holding the silence they were asked to keep. The room is dark, but a fire crackles loudly in the stone fireplace of this rustic, homey shed that serves as lodge for the summer campground. The rhythmical strumming of a guitar begins as the teachers sing a chant that has started each of these trips. "The earth ... the air. .. the water. .. the fire. .. return, return, return, return." As the music makes space, students join along singing, tentatively at first, but with growing confidence. Then silence. One teacher asks the group to imagine a picture of the quality of earth, and how it shapes this place and our lives. The rhythm of chant, silence, and picturing continues weaving through all four elements. Then silence. As the evening ends, the students and teachers file out to walk back to their campsites together. Another year of the senior zoology trip has begun. 

Waldorf science education is rooted in a phenomenological approach. This means that observing phenomena is the key first step. Equally important is the reflective aspect of lessons where teacher and students grapple with previously made observations to come to meaningful relationships. We strive not just to fill the students with facts, but to awaken their capacities for observation, thinking, and artistic expression. Through engaged thinking, students are in the true process of "doing science," not just learning what other people have discovered. When taught well, science lessons awaken an interest in the world and in thinking more deeply about it. Doing this in the novel environment offered at Hermit Island on the Maine coast provides a capstone experience in the natural sciences. The artistic workshops connect the artistic realm to the scientific experience. Paintings, poetry, and observational drawings of marine invertebrates created by students in their field notebooks provide a true integration of art and science. 

Student response to the trip has been enthusiastic. An international student from Ann Arbor told me. "I've seen all of the marine animals on TV. I felt like I knew everything about them. But when I interacted with them in the tide pools and observed the live animals under the microscope, I realized that I didn't really know anything. Now, I actually know them." Another student wrote a typical reflection about the week "I am tremendously grateful for this past week's endless opportunities. growth experiences, and lessons." Over the years, many have identified this as being a favorite experience of senior year.

Recently, I had a conversation with Edward Edelstein, trip founder. His love for marine biology began while tide pooling and snorkeling for abalone on the coast of California as a high school student. As a biology teacher at Ontario's Toronto Waldorf School in 1993, Edelstein wrote a letter to all Waldorf High School biology teachers east of the Rocky Mountains proposing a senior trip to study marine zoology at Hermit Island, where he had vacationed with his family. He got only one positive response.  Andy Dill from the Kimberton Waldorf School said he would give it a try and the first Hermit Island trip was launched with two schools in the fall of 1994.  

Year by year, attendance grew. At its pre-COVID peak there were 17 schools and over 240 students attending over two weeks. Over the past quarter century, several thousand Waldorf seniors have participated in this unique experience.

Zoology has always been at the heart of the trip, not just in the scientific work, but also in such details as the subjects of artistic projects, names of lab groups, and orchestration of evening campfires. Each day, one of the key invertebrate animal phyla (mollusks, annelids, arthropods, and echinoderms) forms the topic for the main lesson presented by collaborating teachers from each school.

Our study is deepened during the daily tide pool, microscope, and ecology labs, which are balanced by artistic workshops. Tidal rhythms sometimes require pre-dawn marches to the rocky shore so the students can experience the tide pools at a 6:00 a.m. low tide. These activities encourage students to enter genuinely into the context in which the marine invertebrates thrive. Experiencing them in their environment is key to understanding these animals. Hermit Island, with its unusual diversity of habitats, allows us to experience not only the animals in the context of their homes, but the amazing beauty of nature on this Maine coast.

An alumna of the class of 2013 recently shared the following reflections from her trip 10 years ago. "Hermit Island was a huge trip for me.  I had never seen an ocean until we pulled up to Hermit Island. That alone was life changing. I had always wanted to experience being by an ocean so close to that expanse of water that is wild and calming and vast. [The trip] opened the senior year in such a unique way. It set that school year apart, making it special from the beginning. It allowed us to connect with people from other Waldorf schools. It allowed us to really bond as a group, away from the rest of the school. I don't have a single bad memory from that trip. I remember it in music, in the book whose author came to speak that I immediately bought at home, in sunshine, mud, pine trees, porcupines fighting in the trees, feeling free. I remember sitting alone on a cliff on our reflection morning and feeling so happy in that place.”

The opening evening ablution and elements circle sets the tone for the week. Sitting at the computer reflecting on the trip, the simple chant echoes on in me. "The earth, the air, the water, the fire, return, return, return, return.” These four elemental qualities contain deep wisdom. When I think of Hermit Island, the pictures of those qualities arise in me: sand, rock, and mud beneath our feet as we explore the different ecosystems; wind raising the surf and bringing the freshness of the ocean's salty water; cold tide pools, home to periwinkles, sea urchins, tunicates, crabs, and sea stars; the fiery sun warming us in the early morning's chill; the crackle of the evening's campfire, calling us to share and listen.

If you ask one of the students who attended the trip, “What happened in Maine?” you may get many answers, but key among the themes I have found are transformation, connection, joy, and amazement. We will continue sharing this experience with other Waldorf students and teachers as we return for another trip in September 2023.

Steiner School Waboba Experiment

July 12, 2023
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

Originally Published in the Waboba Journal

Earlier this year, Noelle Frerichs, a physics teacher at Rudolf Steiner High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, reached out to us about wanting to get her hands on Waboba Pro Balls for an upcoming classroom experiment she was doing. The experiment would involve throwing balls up in the air to calculate the height of each throw using knowledge of the speed of free fall. At first we offered to send Moon Balls since they bounce super high, but Noelle advised it was best to stick with the Waboba Pro balls to get the desired results. (Moon Balls would hit the ceiling in the gym, which would make it problematic for the calculation. Naturally.)

You see, Noelle was planning a series of labs for her 10th grade physics (mechanics) class, where the students discover the acceleration of objects in free fall and learn to calculate the speed and height of a projectile. She thought of the gel Waboba balls because her dog has the pet version - the Waboba Fetch (she has 4, a true furbobian). Noelle knew her students would feel safer trying to catch soft Waboba balls over a hard softball, and others would feel safe with balls flying over their heads too. Plus, they could do the experiment in the gym if needed, and the Pro balls would be heavy enough to get good height, minimizing the effect of air resistance, which would skew their results.

After we sent Noelle some Waboba Pro Balls on the house (we love our teachers), she kept us posted about the experiment and answered some of our other questions too. We hope Noelle's story inspires other teachers to bring Waboba into the classroom to keep life and learning fun!

When/how did you first discover Waboba
I first discovered Waboba in a small outdoor equipment store in Northport, MI.  They sold the Waboba balls that you can bounce across the water and I bought one for my kids, then I later bought the set for dogs.  My dog loves that ball, and it’s the only ball she will play with and chase!  It’s also the way we get her in the water in the summertime.

How did your students respond to the experiment?
The students enjoyed throwing the Waboba balls as high as possible.  They’re amazing because they’re soft but have a good weight to them, so they easily move through the air and can go very high.  The students used timers to measure how long the balls were in the air in order to later calculate how high they could throw.  Some students were throwing the balls over 50 feet into the air, but there were a few who were almost afraid to throw them and only tossed them about 7 feet high.  They had to be encouraged to really throw them!

Any funny stories to share from the lesson?
One of the students threw a ball so high that it went onto the roof of our gym.  It’s still there because we don’t have a ladder high enough to get it down!

How is Steiner School different from other schools?
Something that sets Steiner (a Waldorf school) apart is that we work hard to meet students where they are developmentally. This means that in the preschool years the students’ time is primarily spent playing, to develop a healthy imagination, body and senses, as well as doing meaningful and fun work such as cooking and baking.  They also hear many stories to foster the formation of mental pictures which later supports reading comprehension. In the lower grades the students transition from a more movement-based curriculum to learning about nature, cultures and sciences primarily through stories to which they connect deeply. The upper grades and high school are where the curriculum shift to more deeply intellectual topics and conversations around culture, literature and the sciences. Throughout our school the students are given a balanced curriculum including subjects lessons, arts, music and movement.  Our student-centered approach also cultivates and establishes substantial relationships and helps develop social skills and moral character, as well as, offering a college-prep education.

How do you keep your students engaged in a tech-heavy world?
Something that sets Steiner apart is that we base our science lessons on experiences instead of textbooks or videos. In our science classes, students always start with hands-on experiences. Therefore, the sciences lessons begin in the laboratory and in the field. Observation and experimentation of the phenomena is the basis for the development of the laws and theories of modern science. The result is that we are educating the students to think and discover for themselves, which will serve them particularly well in the sciences but will also be beneficial no matter what their future career will be.

Favorite memory as a teacher:
I love seeing the growth of the students from 9th grade through 12th grade.  Students come to us in 9th grade, some with many worries and insecurities and others with an overabundance of confidence. They are often very social but can be lacking in organizational skills, responsibility and social compassion.  They grow and change so much from 9th to 12th grade and develop into caring and compassionate young adults.

Favorite memory as a student:
I loved chemistry and physics classes as a student.  I remember the day my physics teacher did a demonstration where two balls were simultaneously released from the same height. One was launched horizontally and the other was dropped vertically. I was shocked that they hit the ground at the same time.  I really thought the one that was launched horizontally would have taken longer to hit the ground.  In retrospect, I would have had a hard time believing my teacher if he told us they would hit the ground at the same time without showing us that demonstration.  Instead of focusing on questioning the truth of the statement that they would land at the same time, seeing the demonstration first engaged and interested me, and caused me to focus on questioning why they landed at the same time.

How do you Keep Life Fun with your students?
Because we start every topic with a demonstration or lab experience, the classes are naturally a lot of fun.  The students enjoy hands-on learning.  We also have engaging discussions in order to understand the phenomena that we investigate. The students enjoy sharing their thoughts and ideas, and it brings a social component to the lessons that would be absent if I was just lecturing.  One day the students sat on scooters and raced through the gym to experience relative velocity.  Another day I led them in an organized game of tug of war, an experience which led us to discuss vectors and the idea of equilibrium. There are so many examples of experiences the students have in the sciences, in chemistry, physics and the life sciences, throughout their four years in the high school.  In their senior year the students travel to Maine as part of their Zoology lessons.  We meet up with students from other Waldorf schools from across the country to study the coastal land and the abundance of life in the tide pools.

Did you have a favorite teacher when you were younger that inspired you to teach?
When I was in high school, I had no inclination to ever teach. I was very shy and wasn’t comfortable being in front of a room. My speech class in college was terrifying.  I went to school to be an engineer and worked in the automotive industry for 13 years.  Although I enjoyed my co-workers and many aspects of engineering work, I felt drawn to do something more meaningful. I’d had children by that point and had discovered the local Waldorf school.  I was impressed by the curriculum and the way it built compassion, interest, imagination and logical thinking. Having spent 13 years in engineering, I could directly see the connections between the skills being built in the school and the skills needed for a successful career in engineering.

What inspired you to teach physics?
In order to truly understand a phenomenon, you have to understand it through your own experience. If someone were to give you a mathematical formula explaining motion, you might be able to understand the math, use it to calculate the position vs time, and even graph the motion. However, in order to truly make sense of the model you’d have to be able to connect it to your own experience. You’d have to be able to visualize the motion of the ball. It would be helpful to connect to your experience of throwing a ball straight up, or as far horizontally as you can.  Through your own experience you already know and understand so much more than you realize. By connecting to that experience and then applying the math, you can understand the phenomena and the mathematical model that follows.  Starting out of their own experience trains students to use their own experience to support their understanding. It also helps them to develop self-confidence as they realize the inherent knowledge they can tap into if they just take the time to recognize what they already fundamentally know to be true through their own experience.  I wanted to teach physics in order to help students realize that they have the capacities to figure things out, and to give them experiences and practice doing so, in order to help them develop interest in the world and confidence in themselves.

Thanks to Noelle for taking the time to answer our questions and for sharing her story with us. We wish we were in her class!

How Outdoor Learning Affects Students

March 21, 2023
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

A recent study focusing on children aged 5 to 18 revealed that outdoor education and activities have a multitude of benefits for students. Not only did students exhibit higher levels of self-confidence, stronger friendships, and a greater sense of belonging, but academic performance in math, science, and language also saw an improvement, coupled with increased motivation to learn. Waldorf education places significant value on diverse forms of outdoor learning and experiences, such as scientific observation and environmental projects, camping, field trips, and free exploratory play.

This article was originally published on Children & Nature Network.

Effects of regular classes in outdoor education settings: A systematic review on students' learning, social and health dimensions  
 
Young students hard at work  
during a gardening class.

Regular classes in outdoor settings can promote students’ learning, health, social development, and concern for the environment

This systematic review of the literature was conducted (1) to identify studies about compulsory school- and curriculum-based outdoor education programs (OEPs) for students aged 5-18, (2) to categorize and evaluate outcomes, (3) to assess the methodological quality of the studies, and (4) to discuss possible benefits of such programs for students. The OEPs included in this review offered regular weekly or bi-weekly classes in a natural or cultural environment outside the classroom for at least four hours per week over a period of at least two months. In these programs, the outdoor learning was an embedded component of the school’s curriculum. Only studies reporting at least one student outcome and published in English- and German-language peer-reviewed journals were included.

Only thirteen studies met the inclusion criteria, indicating that the current state of research on OEPs is relatively small. The goals, participant groups, learning environments, methods used and reported outcomes differed widely across the programs. The methodological quality of the studies was, on average, moderate. Eight studies reported outcomes in terms of social dimensions, seven in learning dimensions, and four in additional outcomes. Two studies in the “additional outcomes” category reported on students’ physical activity, one on students’ mental health, one on action regulation behavior, and one on students’ environmental attitude and behavior.

Social outcomes included improved social competencies and social relations, such as self-esteem, self-confidence, trusting relationships, and the sense of belonging. Learning outcomes included improved academic performance in several subjects and improved skills in transferring the knowledge gained to real life situations. Two studies reporting learning outcomes also reported possible benefits relating to learning motivation. The research on physical activity, mental health and action regulation behavior was underrepresented in comparison to results in learning and social dimensions. The study reporting mental health outcomes found a significant decrease in mental health problems for boys but not for girls. One study reported growth in students’ self-confidence, leading them to take active responsibility for the environment.

The overall results of this review indicate that regular compulsory school- and curriculum-based OEPs can promote students’ social, academic, physical and psychological development. Further research is needed, however, to support what this review reports as “tendencies” in relation to the reported outcomes. The authors recommend more quasi-experimental and longitudinal studies with a greater number of participants and high methodological quality.

Older students learn the intricacies of using a theodolite while studying surveying and map making.

Time in Nature can Spark a Lifetime of Science Curiosity

November 28, 2022
By Rudolf Steiner School of Ann Arbor

Being outdoors helps children develop the curiosity that is the essence of science later in life. Time in nature helps students cultivate their independence, imagination and sense of wonder, while helping them feel less stressed and more confident in themselves. That’s one reason why outdoor education and play are core components of Waldorf education.

This article by Jen Rose Smith was originally published on CNN.com

Kids need outdoor time to thrive

Before she became a famous scientist and inventor, Temple Grandin was a kid who liked to play outside.

“I absolutely loved flying kites,” she said. “We would just make up our own games — go sit in the field and make daisy chains.” All that undirected, childhood play, Grandin believes, amounted to more than goofing off. It was a foundation for her life in the sciences.

Now an animal behavior expert and professor at Colorado State University, Grandin has published more than 60 scientific papers. She is an advocate for people with autism, and in 2010 landed on Time magazine’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people.

In her new children’s book “The Outdoor Scientist: The Wonder of Observing the Natural World,” released April 6, she encourages kids to follow her lead into the great outdoors. Time outside, she thinks, helps kindle curiosity that is the essence of science.

“If you are fascinated by clouds or the spots on a ladybug’s back; if you like to split open rocks and see what’s inside, then you’re already an outdoor scientist,” Grandin wrote.

Not enough kids have the opportunities she enjoyed to get dirty, make things and discover their own sense of wonder, she said. “Kids just aren’t outside enough doing it on their own — we need to teach it.”

That’s why she’s asking adults to throw open the doors and send kids outside. Her book, which includes ideas for hands-on projects children can do in nature, joins a chorus of advice from researchers and psychologists who insist kids need outdoor time to thrive.

Here’s why it’s important and how to get started, even if your kid would rather stay on the couch.

How getting outside helps children learn

Until recently, the connection between learning and exposure to nature was poorly understood, wrote Ming Kuo, associate professor of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in a recent review paper. Everyone thought nature was good for kids, she wrote, but they didn’t have robust research to support the thesis. 

Nature excursions are part of the Steiner curriculum

Now, that’s changing. Analyzing dozens of studies, Kuo found strong evidence that exposure to nature promotes attention and relieves stress. It boosts self-discipline and motivation. It’s tied to physical fitness, and also increases kids’ autonomy. The positive effect doesn’t require trips to faraway places, the research found. Just adding green spaces and trees to urban schools makes a real difference. Exploring natural areas outside of school can really help, though, whether it’s a trip to a city park or time in the closest patch of woods.

“Children are able to be more imaginative and engage in more pretend play when they’re in unstructured nature play areas,” said Kylie Dankiw, a researcher at the University of South Australia and author of a 2020 review paper on the benefits of playing outside.

Kids playing in natural areas engaged in more of what Dankiw called “cognitive play,” where they use their imaginations to create their own games. “Imaginative play is really important for developing social skills, interacting with other people and problem solving,” she said.

Playing in the dirt could lead to making scientific breakthroughs

What should kids do with all that outside time? It can be as simple as laying around in the grass, finding the beauty in insects, plants and clouds. “Just playing freely in and with nature,” Dankiw said, “where the child chooses what they want to do and how they want to play.” Outdoor time, in other words, doesn’t need to be structured.

If you want to offer your kid some inspiration, however, Grandin’s book includes 40 child-friendly projects, some that engage young readers with scientific principles. Kids

Students have time to explore and imagine

 can make a model rocket powered by baking soda, for example, or craft a pine cone bird feeder to hang from nearby trees or an apartment window.

You never know where the project might lead. Many scientists, Grandin wrote, have followed their childhood interests to a life of discovery, and she shares some of their stories in the book.

As a child in 19th-century England, Mary Anning joined her siblings to collect seashells near the cliffs of Lyme Regis. That’s where, at 12 years old, she helped uncover the first complete Ichthyosaurus skeleton. The momentous find led to a life in paleontology.

In the United States, a young B.F. Skinner spent his childhood in the woods around his Pennsylvania home, fascinated by the antics of birds, butterflies and chipmunks. After years of study, Skinner’s childhood interests would transform the field of animal behavior.

It’s not that they knew, as children, that their interests would endure a lifetime. Grandin didn’t, either. “I also had no idea that all the stuff I loved doing as a kid would come to inform my life’s work,” Grandin wrote. “I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.” For Grandin and other scientists, though, playing outdoors turned out to be a life-changing opportunity.

Getting your child out the door

Of course, not all kids actually want to go outside. With the right approach, though, psychologist Mary Alvord of Rockville, Maryland, said parents can do a lot to encourage positive experiences in the natural world.

Year-round outdoor time is important

It helps to make it part of your family’s routine. “When my kids were young, they would come home from school, have a snack, then it was like: ‘All right, you have to go outside and play before you start anything else,’” she said. “From the start, it’s about setting the expectation that there is outdoors time.”

If that isn’t already on the family schedule, Alvord suggested parents be open and honest about wanting to make a change. Call a family meeting and make it a conversation, she said.

“Say, ‘We want to start putting in outdoor time — what would you like to do outside? What are some things we could do either as a family, or you could do by yourself, or with a sibling or with friends?’”

When introducing more time outdoors, Alvord said parents may have to do some reframing to get kids on board.

“The frame is: How can you make it appealing and fun?” she said. If it’s cold and rainy outside, that might mean presenting the day as a chance to jump in puddles or look for frogs. Every season, Alvord said, brings changes that can engage children’s curiosity.

If your child says she doesn’t want to go out because she’s doing something else, Alvord suggested giving her a chance to wind down. “Say, ‘Our outdoors time starts in 15 minutes,’” she said, so they can finish a game or wrap up another activity.

Parents’ attitudes count for a lot, Alvord said, which may mean getting out of your own comfort zone even as you’re encouraging your child to head outdoors. Try rethinking your attitude toward “bad” weather or getting dirty, for example. And if you’re hoping to nurture your child’s sense of wonder at the natural world, it could help to reconnect with your own, whether you’re watching the stars, going for a hike or just feeding birds in a nearby park.

“It’s not ‘do as I say,’ it’s ‘do as I do,’” she said. “Kids learn from us by seeing what we do.”

SteinerSchool.org

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