TRENTON — From touch screen tablets in kindergarten, PowerPoint book reports and research done online instead of in the library, technology has seemingly crept into every aspect of education.
But in the after-school program at Trenton Elementary School, two instructors are going back to the oldest teaching tool there is: nature.
Ed Hawes and Whitney Ciancetta, educational technicians who help run the after-school program, are blending outdoor play with learning lifelong skills.
Both Hawes, a first-year educational technician, and Ciancetta, a second-year educational technician, have backgrounds in outdoor education and hope to bring that experience into both the after-school program and eventually into the curricula at Trenton Elementary.
“It’s about getting kids in the woods, getting them tuned into what is going on around them and not what game they are missing on their iPad,” Ciancetta said.
So far, kids in the after-school program have built small faerie houses and survival shelters using materials found in the woods behind the school. This winter, they plan to build igloos so long as there is snow.
“[The kids] make teams and it’s pretty cool to see what they come up with,” she said. “We try to keep our hands out of it as much as possible.”
Hawes, who has worked with high school students in alternative outdoor learning environments, said that the activities involve problem solving and teamwork.
“They learn to use each other’s strengths,” he said. “There is something out there for everyone to contribute.”
The after-school program is just the beginning for Hawes and Ciancetta, whose ultimate goal is to create a permanent outdoor classroom that everyone from art to science to social studies teachers can use.
“We want to utilize the existing trail network and outdoor space here at the school to enhance what’s going on inside the classroom,” Hawes said. “This can be a tremendous asset when used in the right way.”
Hawes and Ciancetta are looking into grants to help fund a permanent outdoor classroom, which they hope will become a resource for the community and other schools.
“All of it together makes for a well-rounded education, a well-rounded student and citizen of the world,” Hawes said.
It’s not all just for fun, either.
Hawes and Ciancetta pointed to research that shows the benefits of playing and learning outdoors.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature can help kids focus and that it can even improve symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Symptoms include impulsivity, hyperactivity, lack of focus and physical or verbal aggression.
According to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, children with ADHD who regularly play in a “green setting” have “milder” symptoms than children who regularly play inside.
Cynthia Lambert, who has taught middle school science at Trenton Elementary for 25 years, has been using the school’s outdoor resources in her lesson plans for years.
She uses the school’s greenhouse, its streams and woods for hands-on science lessons from kindergarten to eighth grade. The students love it, she said.
“Something happens when they are outside,” Lambert said. “The conversation starts to flow, bad behavior goes away, and they start asking thoughtful questions.”