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Is High Mowing an Outdoor School?

Is High Mowing an Outdoor School?
Emma Hamlin

As I meet prospective families, I often am asked how much time our students spend outside, and when I reply, the relief washes over parents' faces. Up to two hours in middle school daily, and more in the younger grades. "Are you an outdoor school?" they ask. Yes — some of the gear companies even give us a discount. Our kiddos go out in all weather, sledding in the depths of winter, splashing through spring rains, and basking in the sun like lizards once spring fully commits to staying.

I say we offer a balance of indoor and outdoor. Because we are focused on teaching the whole child, academic work is one of three parts of the curriculum, with the other two being socio-emotional and physical, so we feel that the three are equally important for the balanced health of the children. The outside world is obviously part of the physical education (morning walks, movement, recess, sports in middle school). It also is part of the socio-emotional life of our students — recess offers great opportunities for interpersonal growth, even where that means personalities running up against one another and being coached through the conflict by a recess teacher. There are also well-documented therapeutic aspects of being in nature, such as forest bathing. We are uniquely equipped to offer such an immersive forest experience, with over a hundred acres of forest to explore daily.

The academic elements of the outdoors seem at first glance more siloed experiences (building in the forest for shelter block in third grade, plant ID and observation in fifth grade botany class, etc.) However, the freedom of recess means that children can follow their interests. For example, one morning recess, during an absolute downpour, I observed one student kicking at a stick that was blocking the flow of water away from the school building. Another student cleared the next obstacle, one thing led to another, and soon a series of ditches, trenches, inlets, dams, waterways and more were under construction. Such a thorough study of hydrodynamics with such collaboration, and so much fun besides that they picked up right where they had left off at second recess, the rain having doggedly continued falling.

Much is made of forest kindergartens, and even a certain amount of time into the grades, but after a certain point it's assumed that middle schoolers will have to devote their time to academics. Not so on our Pine Hill campus – we continue with two recesses a day for middle schoolers, who following some archetypal instinct, try every year to skip coats or hats as they trudge out into the snow (we keep spares). What has caught my eye lately is the correlation between mental health and outdoor time (for myself too!) and what that means for keeping middle schoolers joyful. In the great mental health crisis we observe in modern teens, one of our chief means of finding happiness has to be playing in the outdoors. Here is a study I read recently. The irony of it employing tech for measuring how good the outdoors is is not lost on me, but the measurable data of the quality of the outdoors mattering to the experience struck me as something we are consistently able to provide. Combined with our low-media policy, with an emphasis on delaying access to social media and so forth, I can’t help but think it contributes to the happiness and well-being of our middle-school students. The outdoors is truly for everyone.

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