The San Francisco-based Federation sponsors innovative conference on early childhood outdoor learning

The Federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative, for children ages six months to 8 years old, is generously funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has long supported innovative educational solutions to advance Jewish learning and deepen children’s connection to their Jewish roots. The initiative also includes PJ Library®, supported by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which sends 5,000 books to Jewish children in the Bay Area each month.

The Federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative, for children ages six months to 8 years old. The initiative also includes PJ Library®, supported by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which sends 5,000 books to Jewish children in the Bay Area each month.

By Jackie Krentzman

A few years ago, Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El disassembled its outdoor play structure and replaced it with an array of props and movable parts – tires, planks, hammocks, tree stumps, and more.

“What we discovered was amazing,” says Jodi Gladstone, the synagogue’s Jewish outdoor educator, as well as a Jewish Resource Specialist for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. “The children began moving around more and creating their own areas of play, such as ramps, houses and obstacle courses. We found that they mellowed out and became more entrenched in their play, more focused. The play went to a deeper level.”

Beth El’s successful experiment derives from a practice called Constructivist Education and serves as an example of a movement in early childhood education called the “Outdoor Classroom.” This active learning movement, which uses the physical environment as a tool to prompt questions and creative thinking, has steadily become integrated into Jewish early childhood education across the country. On January 31 and February 1, at the Osher Marin JCC in San Rafael, the Federation and the Jim Joseph Foundation sponsored the first ever Learning Environments from the Inside Out, a national conference for early childhood educators on the Outdoor Classroom.

“Constructivist education and the Outdoor Classroom movement are focused on experiential and intentional learning,” says Janet Harris, the director of the Federation’s Early Childhood Education Initiative. “Educators used to think the kids were empty vessels that teachers will then fill up. We know now that this is not true, that kids come into the world with a great potential to learn. We want to plant the seeds for them to wonder and create sparks for conversation and questions that will lead to deeper engagement and self-directed learning.”

The conference was attended by more than 160 early childhood educators from across the United States. They moved through the many hands-on sessions in 10-person groups and, not unlike their students, were encouraged to experiment, create, explore, and ask questions.

At the conference, Gladstone presented a workshop on ephemeral art, sometimes known as land art or nature art. Participants created and played with natural materials and found objects – the environment as teacher and guide. They pondered these objects and discussed them in pairs and as a group, always searching for a connection to core Jewish values.

“The quality of nature goes away and changes – it is not permanent,” says Gladstone. “The workshop gave educators time for themselves to create and wonder, and also experience the process of working with somebody else and in a group. The purpose was to get them thinking creatively about ‘how I can use this in my classroom? How can I use this to teach Jewish values?’”

The conference’s keynote speaker, Rabbi Meir Muller, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of South Carolina, presented on “Jewish Environments from the Inside Out.”

The overarching theme of his keynote address was the question: “How will documentation be used to make ideas and emotions visible in Jewish learning and life?”

“Documentation of children’s work is so important,” Rabbi Muller says. “It takes the spotlight and shines it back on the child. We are letting them know we think their work is important by hanging it on the walls or displaying it somewhere and talking about it.”

Putting a child’s work up on a wall is also a very Jewish process, says Rabbi Muller. “The Talmud is about memory and commentary. Displaying a child’s work creates both memory as well as an opportunity for a teacher or parent’s narrative. It allows the child to talk about what they created and what meaning they extract from it.”

Outdoor Education is also an authentic Jewish way of learning. Judaism values the asking of questions and struggling with concepts. “The word ‘Israel’ means to struggle with God,” Rabbi Muller says. “Outdoor Education is not about children memorizing, it’s about asking good questions. It’s also about making the world a better place. Gaining knowledge and getting straight A’s is not enough; there must be a bridge to tikkun olam (repairing the world). Learning how to integrate this concept into curriculum and education was the core of this conference.”

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