Using Our Campus as a Classroom

Imagine…

Look up and you see a multitude of birds and exotic tree tops. In the distance, rugged mountains overlook rows upon rows of paddy fields and local farmers with their water buffalo. Feel surprised by the unexpected rustling sounds of lizards and frogs in nearby bushes whilst large butterflies skim past your nose. Take care with every footstep though as brightly-coloured insects dot along your pathway. Bamboo is only ever a few footsteps away and fresh running water can be easily found from all corners of the campus. In every direction you find every shade of green imaginable and when you close your eyes, you hear the harmony of Earth.

As a teacher at Prem Tinsulanonda International School in Chiang Mai, this is the incredible classroom I share with my students. 

Rewind two years: I lived in the contrasting landscape of the Saudi Arabian desert. The heat was oppressive; consistently dry and scorching, making any time outside a challenge. The vastness of the desert was beautiful, mystical and desolate. The buildings, the ground, and the horizon were beige and still. As a youngster who grew up in the British countryside, I came to the revelation that you don’t know what you miss until it’s gone. In Riyadh, I missed the visible signs of life, the greenery, the direct experiences with non-human species, and what seemed a deeper connection to Earth. 

This is what brought me to Chiang Mai and Prem’s beautiful campus. It is here that I commit to take my students beyond the four walls of the classroom at least once a week for quality, sustainable experiences in nature. Luckily for us all, Prem has many facilities that make this  achievable. 

Most notably, we have a farm, a real working farm that grows an abundance of food for the local community and serves as home to goats, pigs, buffalo, tortoises, chickens and so much more. It is here that we can engage with the animals, learning about their anatomy, diet, habitat as well as finding a moment of calm through feeding experiences and sketching. We build respect for nature by learning how to create natural paint and fabric dyes, drawing inspiration from the earthy hues in our locality. Understanding the science and design of hydroponic gardening is available to us as is the complex system of composting (using our leftover cafeteria food). 

During one unit of inquiry last year, my students and I learned the process of biochar as we explored the changing states of matter in the farm’s underground oven. What magic to place rotting fruits and vegetables in the oven one week, and return a week later to find it all beautifully-preserved as charcoal! After bringing the treasures back to our classroom and admiring the beautiful patterns and textures for a few weeks, the students chose to crumble them all up and place them inside the plant pots on campus as fertilizer. This regenerative act demonstrated to me the students’ care and respect for their world.  

Fortunately, we also have a cookery school where we harvest, cook and taste food in a lush, outdoor experience. This year, my students and I were exploring human bodily systems and used a cooking experience as a way to learn about how the food we eat affects our digestion, circulation and immune systems amongst others. Prem’s cookery school is a place where students can expect to collaborate with others around stoves and boiling liquids, whilst using large knives in a safe and controlled environment. Here, students learn how to take risks and use equipment responsibility and sensibly. Tasting new foods is also a source of risk-taking and taking food home to loved ones teaches them to be generous with their actions by sharing the fruits of their labour. 

Our forest school is another area on campus which is a source of intrigue and opportunity. Just recently, my class and I were learning about the skeletal system and visited the forest school (in torrential rain!) to learn survival tactics. Students learned how to make simple splints to support broken bones, understood how to quell the flow of blood around the body in the event of an injury, and to dress simple wounds. Memorably, the session opened with gentle observation of a scorpion that had been found that day in the outskirts of our school grounds. We used this impressive find as an opportunity to learn about this magnificent creature’s anatomy and how it differs to a human’s. Understanding differences between species helps us to understand the uniqueness of our own species as well as building compassion, connection and respect with the diversity of life. In an increasingly globalised world, developing such attitudes towards those who are different to ourselves is a worthy endeavor. Forest school memories will always last-longer than any counterpart textbook experience in our traditional classroom.  

The whole of Prem’s campus provides many opportunities to observe, collect, sort, classify and survey. Connections between mathematical and scientific endeavors come easily: aquaponic areas allow for the safe collection of water to determine its healthfulness whilst our fields, hedges and grassy areas provide many opportunities for studies into area, perimeter and measurement. Other green spaces such as our campfire area are wonderful places for storytelling, discussion and quiet reflection and the beautiful vistas across campus give artistic inspiration for story writing, photography, videography and other forms of artwork. 

At Prem, we are fortunate to have specialist areas of campus such as the farm, cookery school and forest school, but since the whole campus is teeming with life, outdoor learning opportunities are plentiful, both for the experiences that require careful planning and also for those more spontaneous moments of school life. With a campus as beautiful as ours, outdoor learning at Prem reminds us to be committed to developing our sustainable educational practice, to ensure we re-evaluate how we treat the non-human world, and to take action to protect all life forms in our locality. Sometimes, in the busy working week, it can be easy to overlook what’s immediately in front of us and we all need a reset from time to time, to come together to reflect, to discuss, to imagine possibilities. 

As a faculty, this is just what we did on a recent professional development day in October. Guided by our campus experts, Traidhos Three Generations, staff moved across campus to experience a variety of first-hand experiences: using water as a learning resource, forest bathing, mindfulness, nature as art, energy and technology, bird watching, and the manipulation of bamboo. Through professional dialogue, staff reflected on their students’ learning experiences and were challenged to bring as much of the outdoors in – into their curricular areas, that is! The professional development day was energising and inspiring whilst serving a timely reminder for why we need to continually review our relationship with the Earth and to not take its resources for granted.  

Scientists tell us that we are hurtling Earth towards a damaging point of no return, an unbelievable level of self-destruction which UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described in 2011 as a ‘global suicide pact.’ In the aftermath of COP26 this October, it is clear that sustainable education must remain a high priority at all schools to ensure that our young people are equipped to deal with the increasingly precarious relationships of the future; their relationships with the planet and with other people. 

I am reminded of my own feelings when I lived in Riyadh those years ago: you don’t know what you miss until it’s gone. In my capacity as an educator, one small goal I give myself is to help students appreciate the wonder of the natural world, to help nurture their gentle, caring and respectful relationships with other species and each other. Taking students outside to learn helps them interact with other species, and through curricular experiences, we can together work on projects that help to sustain the healthfulness of our ecosystems and regenerate life.  I continually remind myself how we, as adults, cannot expect our young people to care about the Earth if they don’t develop a relationship with it; they don’t develop a relationship with it unless they experience it. In a world of ever-enticing online experiences and Covid-19 restrictions, we can all play a role in protecting our Earth by encouraging our young people to spend time outside to experience the interconnectedness of life and learn how to contribute to a thriving ecosystem.

 

Charlotte Hankin

Grade 3/4 Teacher

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