Laura Wilbanks (Whiteface Elementary – Whiteface, TX) hit the road today in the name of play. With her Fund for Teachers grant, she will interview in Austin, Portland and Vancouver experts leading the movement to redesign school playground landscapes. Along the way, she’ll observe excellent programs in Whitefish, MT; Olympia, WA; and Fresno, CA. Armed with research on best practices and materials, Laura will return to lead the construction of on an outdoor adventure space for at-risk students – a playground for which she raised $30,000 and secured donated supplies. She shares more of her plans…
The lack of outdoor play is short-changing the education, health, and development of our children.Outdoor exploration and experiential learning helps improve motor functions, creativity, decision-making,problem solving and social skills, yet almost half of children get less than three hours of active play per week. Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University, states,
“Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development.”
As a teacher who nurtures these children on a daily basis, I see firsthand the results of too much time spent indoors.
To combat what Richard Louv coined “Nature Deficit Disorder,” I designed my Fund for Teachers fellowship to observe to the top three destinations for outdoor spaces for children: Zilker Park in Austin, TX; the David Heil Group Specialists in Portland, OR; and the Terra Nova Outdoor Adventure Park in Vancouver, British Columbia. Collecting testimonies and hands-on experiences with the directors and children in the outdoor spaces will allow me to design a space in my community that will be the most effective and researched-based area possible.
My learning goals are:
- What do children miss seeing, hearing, and knowing because they allow the tangle of technology’s wire to tighten around them a little more each day; and, how can those deficits be remedied through the establishment of a quality outdoor learning space?
- How can I most effectively promote balance between technology and nature in order to maintain the interest of this information-generation while simultaneously igniting a lifelong fire for nature?
- In what ways will my students begin the journey towards environmental literacy if the love of local wild spaces is planted in their hearts during childhood and nurtured by a school district and community collaboration?
The impact will be clear – outdoor education will become a daily part of learning for the students in my district. Students in environment-based instructional programs score as well or better on standardized measures in four basic subject areas — reading, math, language and spelling. The benefit doesn’t stop with just science. Outdoor programs also foster cooperative learning and civic responsibility, using the natural characteristics of the school grounds and local community as a framework for curriculum, and life itself. Students need wild places to explore and a safe area in which to experience the wonder of nature.
My research will provide the information needed to establish an outdoor space at Whiteface Elementary. With funds and supplies committed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, The Friends of Muleshoe/Grulla Naitonal Wildlife Refuge Group and The Bamert Native Seed Company, we will set a standard in outdoor excellence for my area of Texas so that other schools will become proactive in the outdoor movement, as well.
An excerpt from Louv’s The Nature Principle states,
“Connected and honored, natural teachers could inspire other teachers; they could become a galvanizing force within their schools. In the process, they would contribute to their own psychological, physical, and spiritual health.”
There is no doubt about it, schools need communities in order to support outdoor learning, but educators can lead the way; and, I believe that as one teacher, I do make a difference.
(Photos: L-R Austin’s Zilker Park and the Terra Nova Outdoor Adventure Park in Vancouver)
As a biologist for the Fish & Wildlife Service, for 27 years Laura has also taught students to make a difference in their world through project-based learning – earning her students $800,000 in scholarships. She received the President’s Innovation Award in Environmental Education, The Richard C. Bartlett Award (donating the $5,000 cash prize toward construction of the outdoor adventure park), Wal-Mart Teacher of the Year, Texas Environmental Excellence Award, Soil & Water Teacher of the Year and is TMA’s Top Texas Elementary Science Teacher.