KOKOMO, Ind. — Rain, sleet or shine, students in Kokomo are outside and in class. There are nearly 65 students in pre-K through second grade enrolled in the Outdoor Learning program at Boulevard Elementary School this school year.
The program has steadily grown since it launched five years ago and there is a waiting list for new students.
The kindergarten students start the school day in the school building, and after lunch in the cafeteria, they pull on their boots and head outside for the rest of the school day. They hike to the woods at the back of the school property, which has a restored log cabin from the 1800s, a pond, and plenty of room to play.
Elizabeth Rayl said leading the program is her dream job and her students are "happier when you don't have walls to bounce off."
Tom Hughes enrolled his 6-year-old daughter Addison in the program. He believes she is learning resilience, adaptability and a healthy outlook.
"She's somebody that appreciates nature. She appreciates the little things like the sunrise or the wind, or the clouds," Hughes said. "Those are the things that as we grow up we forget about and those are the things that make your day better."
The flexible curriculum includes science, writing, and art. When the forecast called for high winds, Rayl quickly added kites and bubbles to the lesson plan so her students could experience the wind firsthand.
The students are encouraged to find bugs, hold them and learn about their role in the environment.
"When we teach them that the centipede has an important part in our whole system and we don't have to be scared of them, if we teach them to respect the small things, I think that's going to help them be the best you and take care of our Earth and take care of each other," Rayl said.
The outdoor learning experiences are all in-person and there isn't a computer, tablet or cellphone around.
"Technology is kind of a double-edged sword. It's really great for a lot of things, but I feel for our brain development for our eyes, for our attention and our mood, it can really hinder us," Rayl said. "I think if you can give them a balance, do technology inside...in a traditional class, but then we get to unwind and come out here and it's less stressful, and we don't have the eye fatigue, and I think having a balance is the way to go."
When the formal coursework is completed, the students have unstructured playtime.
"This is their favorite part because they can explore what they want. So they can be painting, they can be climbing trees, they can be digging for worms, but they get to decide what they love," Rayl said.
The only thing that stops learning outside is lightning. So students must be prepared to spend hours in the rain, snow, cold, and heat every day.
"It lets the kids have a lot of grit and resilience, so they overcome things. So when they're cold, they learn to work together, they learn how to stay warm, and there are so many lessons in it, not just your normal traditional curriculum," Rayl said.
During this year of COVID, Rayl said the freedom to go outside saved the school year.
Rayl said the students walk at least a mile each day, which is great for both physical and mental health.
"I feel like if we give kids more space and time that everybody would be happier," Rayl said.
Hughes said his daughter is excited to go to school and he doesn't mind providing the extra supplies.
"My favorite days are the days that I get a black trash bag tied at the top that is full of muddy, nasty, disgusting boots and gloves and coats and snow pants. And we get it washed and dried and ready to go back for Monday. That tells me we had a great week," Hughes said.
Hughes will have double the cleanup next school year, as his son Kellen, 4, secured a coveted spot in the Outdoor Preschool class this fall.