Literacy for All Kinds of Intelligence

Naturally Smart
An integrated approach to literacy can include the great outdoors


You might expect a school called Walden to have an affinity for the natural world. For some, the name might evoke thoughts of Walden Pond, the serene, wooded retreat of transcendental thinker and writer Henry David Thoreau. This is perfectly fine with educators at Walden Community School in Winter Park, Florida. School founder and director Dr. Carol Mikulka says a day outdoors is a good day, indeed. "When you let students experience flowers, trees, games, scavenger hunts... it increases their motivation to learn. It improves their attention span. They become more engaged!"

Mikulka places a premium on educating children in ways that are age-appropriate and child-centered. She believes America's students will become more successful when they are pushed less. As a practicing psychiatrist, she expresses serious concern about the shift in the country's educational approach over the past thirty years. "Children are always indoors!" Mikulka laments. She lists loss of recess time, earlier formal schooling, and indoor afterschool programming as part of a shift away from a wholesome balance in childhood. "Their brains just shut down, because the balance just isn't there."

One way Walden seeks a remedy for imbalance is to allow children time to learn outdoors. Walden is a Project Learning Tree school. This national program provides lesson plans, teacher training and other assistance for greater environmental education. Three years into the PLT designation, Mikulka is impressed with the environmental curriculum and its impact on overall literacy. "It's amazing, and it's so relevant. Learning about trees, the environment... that makes them more literate in general. But this learning is about discovery. It's about inquiry and foreshadowing and association and anticipation... the same skills needed to be a strong reader!"

Mikulka is among many Florida educators who value nature as a classroom with wide appeal for a wide array of learners. For students with naturalistic, auditory and kinesthetic inclinations, they have a chance to connect and to excel in ways they might not in a more traditional setting. The sentiment is shared by Deb Wagner, a fourth grade teacher at St. Paul's Lutheran School in Lakeland. In Wagner's 30 years as a classroom teacher, she has seen many students "blossom" because of an emphasis on the outdoors. Wagner has learned to consider the learning styles, interests and varied abilities of her students as she plans. They read selected children's literature as a focal point and approach all instruction from the content areas, especially science. "We use a lot of Magic School Bus books, a lot of Jean Craighead George books... they can see how science applies throughout the books." Wagner says the strategy is powerful... teaching science, social studies, math, art, language arts and even scripture, since they are a Christian school. Using high-interest children's literature, she reports phenomenal engagement from her students. "...even my non-readers. Their scores are astronomical. You wouldn't believe the amount of growth I see in a year."

St Paul's students, like those at Walden, are outdoors frequently. Wagner sees them absorbing new material with relative ease. She says it's because of the integrated approach to the material as well as the enjoyment of being outdoors, learning by doing. "It's not laborious. They get the facts and the vocabulary, but they will remember it, because they've done it. Wagner says the best part of the process might be the family involvement...."watching them go home and tell family... and having the whole family, including the grandparents go bird watching or build bird houses or get involved with the environment. That's great."

Wagner's approach is apparently working. In addition to the improved test scores she cited, she was named PLT Teacher of the Year for both Florida and for the nation. Combining environmental education with reading is extremely important to her. "It opens up a whole new level, and then they want to read other things... higher and higher levels of science, for example."

Nancy Peterson, Florida's PLT Coordinator, says the focus on literacy in Florida is especially strong. PLT offers units specifically for 3rd and 4th grade students with state standards in mind. But she says, nationally, all the PLT units are in line with national education standards. The units suggest related literature, as well. Peterson says teaching about ecology across content areas is exactly what's intended. She explains that this is reflected in the diverse group of teachers trained by PLT. "A lot of people assume all our teachers are science teachers but we have almost an equal number of language arts teachers... even some art teachers. It really is a multi-discipline curriculum."

PLT has been around for about 35 years, and Peterson has worked with the evolving curriculum for 30 of those years. Peterson lauds the many literacy benefits of helping naturalistically strong students access language by connecting with the plants and animals they already love. "We've done hikes based on poetry. There's a lot of journaling. We've had students who enjoy making tents and then going inside to write poems or stories. Even with high school students... some of them who may not read well can find a way here to feel confident and to excel." Those who are already strong in literacy skills have a chance to use those to explore new territory... outdoors.

Whether students are more or less inclined towards nature initially, these educators speak of significant dividends with environmental education and with PLT. Because of the new emphasis on a greener planet, because of the desire to teach content in an integrated way, and because of the opportunity to increase engagement for all students, PLT has won admirers. But for some of those devotees, like Mikulka, one benefit is at least as important as all the rest: simply getting children outdoors for a chance to simply be children. "PLT puts the kid back in the kid," she says with no small amount of appreciation. "We just have to remind them to put on their sunscreen."

Florida's Project Learning Tree works in conjunction with the University of Florida. PLT training is available to all interested teachers, but to become a PLT school, at least 50% of teachers must be trained by PLT and at least 5 lessons must be integrated into the curriculum. To find out more about PLT, consult the national website: Carol Mikulka recommends a book on the benefits of adding outdoors to the instructional day.

It's No Student Left Indoors: Creating a Field Guide to Your Schoolyard by Jane Kirkland. Please find links to the book listed below.

All photographs in this story are from St. Paul's Lutheran School. Literacy for All Kinds of Intelligence is based on Howard Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Those intelligences are: linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, existential and naturalistic.


No Student Left Indoors


(c) HAPPY Reading 2011