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Lessons for STEM Learning in 'Forest Mondays'?

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Recently, in a Q&A with Ed Week, Sir Ken Robinson of TED Talk fame offered this critique of modern schooling: "We don't organize our days in 40-minute bits and pieces and blow whistles at home and move on to the next thing. We just do that in schools," he said. "And it gets in the way of learning very often. We don't sit people in desks all day long when they're at home and get them to fill out multiple-choice tests. We get up and do other things."

A recent NPR story provides a glimpse of an alternative to the staid approach derided by Robinson—it's about a Vermont public school teacher who takes her young students out to the woods for an entire school day each week. 

Kindergarten teacher Eliza Minnucci instituted "Forest Mondays" two years ago, reports Emily Hanford, and kids go out regardless of the weather. They run around, throw things, build dams. They also take part in some organized lessons involving painting and writing words with sticks. 

They learn lessons about problem-solving and perseverance on their own. "There was just a boy who was trying to bring a downed, somewhat rotten tree [to build a dam], and he figured out how to roll it—he saw he could get leverage with one of the branches," Minnucci said in the radio segment. 

There's also a notable line in the written version of the story. "In the classroom, we chunk everything into small pieces. We teach them discrete skills and facts and they put it together later," explained Minnucci. "That's a good way to learn, but it's not the way the world works." 

In some sense, that sums up what the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) movement is aiming for: skill integration. The dam builders are learning about ecosystems and plant biology and weather and motion and engineering all at once. They're doing it through inquiry, hands-on activities, and collaboration. And they not just learning with a "real-world" approach—they're actually learning in the real world. 

Other early-childhood classes are heading outdoors all day, too—there's a forest kindergarten in Switzerland (which was Minnucci's inspiration) and another in Vashon Island, Wash

I'd be interested in hearing from educators: Should more STEM learning happen outdoors? And should more than just kindergartners be doing forest learning? 

Image: iStockphoto

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