Tuesday, August 3, 2021

I Started a School Based on a Simple Idea: Get Kids Outside

I was asked recently about being an “activist” in education. I had never thought much about being an activist. I simply do and educate as I intuitively feel is “right” for many children. As the definition of activist is quite broad, I thought it best to take a minute to elaborate a bit on how I view myself as an activist and my role in education.

I truly believe in “learning by doing” and the “proof is in the pudding.” Nine years ago, on the very first day of my daughter’s outdoor, one day per week, forest kindergarten, I knew there was something special and magical about being outdoors and learning outdoors. Ever since that day, I have been growing and bettering my nature school program. Although we are still very small, our school tripled in size last year and will double in size for the upcoming year.

My activism starts by offering and establishing a program that many psychologists and experts agree is beneficial to kids in our modern world. That is, to get them outside. Our outdoor offering is frequent, regular, and long-term, making it a norm for children rather than a novelty. We truly immerse them in the outdoors—six hours a day, four days per week. Now, don’t get me wrong, one day per week programs are beneficial, but we have found over the years, students grow exponentially—not linearly—with the number of days spent with us outdoors. This has become so important to us that we no longer offer a one-day-per-week program.

My activism continues as we work very hard to connect with our students. Our mission to connect children with the outdoors and connect humans with one another is primarily accomplished through time—regular and frequent—in the outdoors and with others in mixed-age groups. Through connection comes learning, so it is very important to us to know our students and for them to know and trust us. 

When students connect with and trust a teacher, their hearts and minds open to learning.

When students connect with and trust a teacher, their hearts and minds open to learning. This connection is established in so many ways during our days through games, lessons, playtime and conversation. I love it when a student gives me a few minutes of unstructured time to sit with me. It broke my heart yesterday as the class comedian sat with me and asked how many weeks were left before the summer break. When I told him, he said in all seriousness, “That’s sad.” When I asked why, he said, “Because, then you are leaving.”

The third and equally important facet of my activism in educating a child is teaching academic knowledge and skills. Children learn in so many different ways. More ways than the basic haptic, aural and visual. Most educators agree that the most effective way to teach a child is to meet them where they are developmentally and grow from there on an individual basis. Our 6:1 student-teacher ratio and strong relationships enable us to better meet our student’s needs and to inspire their learning.

I feel my activism starts and ends with DOING.

And so it is that I feel my activism starts and ends with DOING. There are great theories and wonderful ideas about education, many of which are based on research. And there are books to guide in teaching these theories. We put some of these ideas into practice and add them to many of our own ideas based on our goals. 

We test and we try and we tweak and grow and learn. We have been doing so for eight years. We don’t have all the answers and we are not for every child nor every family. But we see the results of our program in our students. They are happy. They love school. They care for one another like family. They care for our Earth. Our students are our “proof in the pudding.”

Some might call it ‘activism,’ but I just call it providing children with what I believe to be the best education.

Some might call it ‘activism,’ but I just call it providing children with what I believe to be the best education. Our teachers and I make a difference one child at a time. We know that each child will impact at least 10 others. And those 10 others will each impact another 10. And so on. Not only that, but our program has inspired others to develop programs of their own. I get many requests for teacher training and curriculum. That will happen—in the future.

Each year, we grow a bit more. Making a difference in a few more lives. Educating each child as a whole with equal parts of connecting to the truth that exists in the natural world, connecting to one another to develop the skills needed to relate to one another as human beings and providing them with a knowledge base and academic skills to function in and contribute to our modern world.

Photo courtesy of the author.

Dawn Robinette

Dawn Robinette is the founder and director of Camino De Santiago Nature School, which she founded in January 2013. It serves as an alternative and unique educational resource for children 5 to 12 years old that provides them with academic experiences while immersed in nature. Outdoor classroom settings are in Orange County and the Nevada City area, where her family recently purchased land.

As a young adult, Dawn pursued a career in architecture and interior design. She graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a bachelor's of architecture in 1993, where the school’s philosophy of "learning by doing" resonated with her. After establishing a design firm and retail store with her husband, she returned to her studies at the University of Washington in 2005 to pursue a teaching career.

Dawn’s master’s thesis was based on design-build and she spent nine months, as a teacher’s assistant, working on a design-build project in which her class built a multigenerational home for the indigenous community of Yakima, Washington. Dawn also taught young adults at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Art Institute of Orange County.

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