Outdoors trumps indoors every time

Nurturing in nature

In Short

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we think about and plan for a new school year. For Jewish schools in particular, where celebrating Shabbat and holidays together is fundamental to our core values, we have been forced to re-imagine everything we used to do to help create community and to support our preschool families.

Before the pandemic

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, planning for a new school year included stocking up on basic supplies like crayons, glue, construction paper and gallons of paint. We put holidays and celebrations on the school calendar, and looked forward to having families join us on Shabbat, for Thanksgiving, and to light candles together on Hanukkah. Parents and caregivers looked forward to morning drop-off, and enjoyed sticking around to catch up with one another once children were delivered safely to their classrooms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we think about and plan for a new school year. For Jewish schools in particular, where celebrating Shabbat and holidays together is fundamental to our core values, we have been forced to reimagine everything we used to do to help create community and to support our preschool families.  

As a director, much of my time these days is spent focusing on how to keep our littlest learners safe and healthy and in school. Writing and re-writing polices for mask wearing, illness and travel is something that I had hoped would be different this school year. We are thankfully open for in-person learning, and we are stronger for having survived a full year of school during a pandemic. Presently, the challenge in early childhood education, and specifically in Jewish education, is how can we maintain a sense of kehillah kedosha, sacred community, amidst a global pandemic? Coming together safely these days usually means that teachers, students and parents gather outdoors, where transmission rates are lower, and social distancing can be achieved most easily.  

The teachings of the natural world

In Judaism we teach that God created the universe. Being in nature helps remind us that God is everywhere, and that human beings are created in the image of God. Books such as Spirit in Nature, Teaching Judaism and Ecology on the Trail, by Matt Biers-Ariel, Deborah Newbrun and Michal Fox Smart, provide a framework for Jewish educators to use the natural world as their classroom. The Hebrew calendar reflects our deep connection to the earth, and brings us together three times a year to celebrate the harvest – on Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.  

The natural world is a powerful teacher. All you need to do is step outside your front door to access it. A silver lining of COVID-19 is an increase in time spent outdoors. Fresh air, sunshine and the sounds of birds chirping awakens the senses in ways that teaching indoors cannot. At Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn Heights, New York, teachers regularly take the children on nature walks looking for leaves, pine cones and any natural “treasures” the children can find. Work on an outdoor classroom is underway, where children will spend time in all weather, playing in the mud kitchen, climbing on tree stumps, and making music using pots, pans and wooden spoons. For the spring, teachers are planning a composting unit as a means to emphasize the Jewish values of ba’al tashchit and tkkun olam. It is considered a mitzvah to not waste what we have, and we must do our part to protect and preserve our environment. In composting, not only are we teaching our children how we can turn our organic waste into fertilizer, we are helping the environment in a myriad of ways. Children learn how to classify and sort waste products for composting, and over time, they are able to watch the scientific process of how food waste gets broken down to help create a natural fertilizer that can then be used to nourish plants in the garden. Because compost needs to be turned weekly, young children can help out by turning the soil in a community effort. Books like The Earth Book, by Todd Parr help reinforce our emphasis on taking care of our environment by helping us teach young children about ways in which even the littlest learners can do their part to care for the earth and to reduce, reuse and recycle.  

In addition to the Jewish harvest festivals, we also celebrate Tu B’Shevat, our annual celebration of the trees. This holiday is one that young children are able to understand when explained as the “Birthday of the Trees.” The pandemic advisors have taught us that outdoors trumps indoors every time when it comes to safely interacting and playing together, and we have in Tu B’Shevat yet another reason to be outside, to look all around us at the beauty in nature and in the trees.  

Lessons learned

This school year, we come together outdoors during the school day, and whenever possible, we invite caregivers and families to join us. Last month for Sukkot, over forty preschool families gathered together in our beloved sukkah in celebration, in song, and in community. Despite the threat of rain, we went ahead with the event as planned and our families came out, prepared for any weather. I was reminded by a friend of the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.”

In mid-October we invited our families back for another opportunity to come together, this time for pumpkin picking, crafts on our synagogue property. The crisp fall weather and the colorful fall leaves provided  the perfect backdrop for our gathering. As parents were leaving, they asked me, “When’s the next one?” We keep our gatherings during the school day to under an hour, so as not to disrupt the flow of the day, and to allow the teachers to be able to continue working their magic in the classrooms.  

On Shabbat morning, we invite families with young children to join us for Mini Minyan services in our outdoor tented space, with nature as our backdrop. Reciting blessings and singing songs in the fresh air just feels different than doing these same things indoors. Additionally, families feel more comfortable gathering outside in the fresh air. Masks come down and little voices, joined by grown-up voices, sing loud and proud. The ”Hey!” after “Shab-bat Sha-lom” can be heard all the way in our main office.   

I often look for silver linings running a preschool in a pandemic, and getting outside more than ever before is definitely high on my list. We are currently thinking about ways to gather outdoors safely, in community, for Thanksgiving and for Hanukkah. Our staff meetings have become brainstorming sessions for new and creative ways to be together outside. Last year’s planning focused primarily on moving what we have always traditionally done from indoors, to outdoors. One year later, we have a better understanding of the “how-tos,” and we can now focus on ways to “up our game,” outdoors. At our recent pumpkin picking event, our parents association donated props and a backdrop for an outdoor ‘photo booth’ opportunity. Everyone loved it, and we were able to give parents a keepsake to remember the event. For Hanukkah this year, in addition to a candle lighting ceremony and a live concert, we will have sufganiyot and latkes, and we are exploring the idea of bringing in a graffiti artist. As long as it is not raining or snowing, families are willing to put on an extra layer for the opportunity to be together.  

The weather plays the biggest role in our daily schedule these days. I compare three different weather apps on my phone in order to determine the most accurate forecast. The energy in the school feels different when the children are unable to get outside. Even fifteen minutes outside in the fresh air provides young children with the freedom to explore and to run and jump and play. When they return back to their classrooms, they are able to sit and focus better, having had the time outdoors to recharge their batteries. So far, the weather has cooperated for us this year.  When we plan our events, we prepare for all weather scenarios and hope for the best. If we have to move to Zoom, we can and do, but only as a last resort. Nothing compares to gathering together in person. Feeling connected to a community means having a place to call home, a refuge. During these pandemic school days, my goal is to bring families together as often as possible, with safety as the priority.

While our supply list for this school year still includes the basics like paper and glue, we also stock containers for collecting treasures we find on our nature walks, and magnifying glasses to explore what we find. A compost bin and mud kitchen are waiting to be installed in our outdoor classroom space. When my niece was recently facing some challenges at college, I reminded her, as I often remind myself, “we grow through what we go through.” As we enter the last two months of this calendar year, I am grateful to be where we are at this point in the school year. The weather has been good to us, and our kehillah kedosha is stronger than ever before. May we all continue to grow from strength to strength, baruch hashem.

Jen Schiffer has been an educator In Jewish early childhood education for over ten years, teaching in Queens and Long Island. In her role as director of the Temple Beth Sholom Early Childhood Center in Roslyn Heights, New York, she is passionate about engaging young families in her community by providing meaningful Jewish curriculum  in her early childhood education program